July 25, 2016

After his last day on air at Chicago’s WMAQ, Anthony Ponce shared a video on Facebook about his new gig.

“Four months ago, I took a second job,” text at the bottom of his video reads. “A job as a driver. A driver for Lyft. Yes, those pink mustache cars.”

Ponce is leaving the newsroom, but he still plans to tell stories. They’ll just be stories from the people he meets in the backseat of his Chevy Equinox.

In August, Ponce will launch “Backseat Rider,” a podcast that features interviews with people he drives around town for Lyft. It’s an out-of-the-ordinary plan B for Ponce, a former reporter and weekend morning news anchor who quit his job after being passed over for a weekday anchor position, according to Chicago Media reporter Robert Feder.

Here’s some of the podcast’s description on iTunes:

From stressed-out businessmen and weary baristas to chatty strippers and jaded bartenders…hear the unique worldviews of people from all walks of life as Anthony and his riders navigate the streets of Chicago. (Interviews are recorded with full knowledge and consent)

The challenges so far are threefold, Ponce told Poynter in an email:

“A. Editing,” he wrote. “I’ve never edited audio before, so there is a learning curve. B. Narrowing down so much raw material to a fun, informative, and digestible product. I will pick one or more themes to explore with passengers for each podcast. C. Conducting meaningful interviews while navigating the streets of Chicago.”

Ponce isn’t the only journalist to make the most out of passengers and their stories. NPR’s Frank Langfitt, now based in London, gave free rides to people in China and often got stories out of those passengers. Here’s what Langfitt told Poynter’s Melody Kramer about what he found:

Meeting people in the cab allows me to write organic, human profiles. The people and their challenges, concerns and observations about life here drive the stories. Sometimes conventional news pieces and pegged-features force you to toss out the most interesting moments with characters because there’s no space or those moments don’t fit the story’s convention. This format permits you to troll for interesting characters and then delve deeper when you find one.

In Chicago, Lyft has been supportive of the idea, Ponce said.

“I sense they like the entrepreneurial spirit of the project, but I never told them I was going to actually quit my job to do it,” he said. “Someone from Lyft just reached out to me for coffee, so I’ll be anxious to see what they say. For the last four months, I have used the Lyft app like any other driver.”

He’s not like any other driver, however, if he’s creating a podcast from those rides. So far, what he’s heard from passengers has been anecdotal and personal, Ponce said. So how does he verify what he’s hearing?

“Those are difficult — if not impossible — to fact-check, so candidly it comes down to my own B.S. meter,” he said. “A lot of my material is passengers’ opinions on topics, which don’t require a fact check.”

For instance, after the Orlando massacre, Ponce had a passenger who owned an AR-15. The two spoke for 25 minutes on gun control (and the passenger was OK with the recording).

“I’m thinking of just posting that one, raw,” Ponce said.

The journalist-turned-driver comes from a news family. His brother, Dan Ponce, reports for WGN, Feder reported, and their father, Phil Ponce, hosts a show on WTTW. So what do they think of Ponce’s career move? Overall, they’ve been supportive, he said.

“I think they are a combination of scared and excited, just like me.”

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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