It’s like Uber…but with an NPR reporter driving.
Meet Frank Langfitt, an NPR correspondent based in Shanghai, who has recently been offering free rides around the city in exchange for good stories. (Full disclosure: I used to work with Frank at NPR, though I was based in DC and he was based in Shanghai.)
So far, his customers have included a banker, a fruit-seller, a man who attends an underground Christian church and a Chinese couple who needed to travel more than 500 miles to attend their own wedding. Frank drove them for more than 14 hours before they needed to stop and spend the night in a hotel because he ran out of gas — physically.
I wanted to talk to Frank because I love the idea of finding stories by seeking serendipity. But I also wanted to find out if offering to drive total strangers around a city was worth the time, traffic and gas money.
Frank, who used to drive a taxi in Philly, says it’s totally worth it — because he found story ideas he wouldn’t have otherwise found. And he shared several tips if you or your reporters would like to replicate his taxi cab service in your own city. But first, we started with the basics.
MK: Frank, I have to ask: How are you physically doing your taxicab stories? How do you record people from the front of the cab?
FL: I often pick people up on the way to and from work. I keep an eye out for people trying to hail a cab. Prime time for me is when it rains and it’s almost impossible to get a taxi here. I use a tape recorder with a very high quality internal microphone when I record in the cab. But I don’t do that often. I generally just chat and if the person is interesting, I set up later times to talk, either in the car, over coffee or at their homes. In February, when I drove people back to their hometowns during Chinese New Year, I had my assistant, Yang, sit in the front seat and use a shotgun microphone to record my three passengers.
MK: What kinds of stories are you finding?
FL: All kinds of characters I would not have met through conventional reporting. The first guy I profiled was a pajama salesman I met at a ferry stop. He mentioned in passing that he’d sent his family to L.A. because China’s homework-heavy education system was crushing his daughter and ruining her eyesight. A few days later, he invited me to his home where he ran an underground Christian church. I knew many millionaires were sending their families overseas for cleaner air and better education, but I didn’t realize a pajama salesman had an exit strategy, too. This was a kind of guy I couldn’t have looked for, because I didn’t know he existed.
MK: How is your taxicab series helping you find new ways to tell stories?
FL: 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.
MK: What have you learned that you can pass along to other newsrooms?
FL: Talk to everyone all the time. As a reporter, you are always working. Think Studs Terkel. Instead of finding a trend and then searching for examples to illustrate it, talk, listen, dig and observe in your communities. There are stories staring you in the face. Years ago, The New York Times had a section called “The Way We Live Now,” which included stories about how we live, what we worry about, etc. They were the kind of stories that could help fill out a social history of the era.
MK: Do you think you can do this because you’re a guy? I’m not sure I would want to pick up a random stranger in my car.
FL: Gender isn’t the key. It’s much easier to do this in Shanghai than say a big American city because – when it comes to crime – China is still much safer. (Now watch me get mugged!) I ran my free taxi plan past a bunch of cabbies and they were confident I’d be OK. For now, I stay mostly downtown and don’t drive much after dark. I have taken passengers to far-flung parts of the city where they told me not to pick anyone up – mostly for fear someone would try to scam me.
If you were a woman driving here, you would be hit on incessantly, but how would that be different than the states? The biggest factor is my nationality. Chinese in big cities deeply distrust one another, but they have a much better impression of foreigners. My American background is a big plus in this context.
MK: How is your driving holding up?
FL: Driving here is like playing a three-level video game where opponents come from all directions and follow no rules. Electric scooter drivers routinely run red lights right in front of you. When I was walking home once, a scooter ran over my foot. Navigating the city can be exhausting, so I find I’m falling asleep much earlier at night. My big goal is to complete this project without crashing my car.
MK: Would you ever consider other kinds of transportation?
FL: Not really. I bought a black Toyota Camry and a sedan works well in a mega-city like Shanghai. Sometimes, I’ve found driving a van in rural areas is very helpful because you can carry more people and their produce.
MK: I want to take a step back. How did you get the idea?
FL: I was a cabbie in our shared-hometown, Philadelphia, in summers during high school, college and afterward. I found people really opened up inside a cab and told you things sometimes they wouldn’t even tell friends. I learned a lot about Philadelphia as a cabbie, so I decided to apply that model to Shanghai.
MK: Why is driving someone a particularly good way to find out stories?
FL: The key is when someone gets in the car and starts chatting, it’s not an interview. Interviewing isn’t a good way to learn about people, it’s just a convention. There are lists of questions, broad ones, detailed ones. Cars are places for casual conversations, so it sets a very different tone. The longer the ride, the more people tend to open up. Most passengers begin by interviewing me, asking questions about what I’m doing with my car, because it is one-of-a-kind. That turns the normal dynamic between reporter and subject on its head.
MK: How are you making the stories into a multimedia experience with multiple parts for Web/radio?
I’m taking selfies with most passengers and then posting on Facebook and Twitter with short descriptions of the people and the most interesting thing they said. When I did a road trip and attended a wedding over Chinese New Year, I shot photos and did a photo essay, which we translated into Chinese and which did very well on Chinese social media.
MK: What are other ways to create serendipity when finding stories?
FL: Find things to do with your subjects. I once went canoeing with an environmentalist/U.S. Congressman in his district on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This makes for better scenes and feels less like an interview. One of the reasons the free cab seems to work is I provide a service and I’m not just trying to extract information. The cab gives me a tiny role beyond reporter and a way to connect with people in a relaxed and informal way.