Why this former Chicago anchorman became a driver to tell better stories.
Many people dream of being on television. For ex-NBC journalist Anthony Ponce the dream wasn’t enough.
An anchor on a major Chicago TV station, he’d made it, by most career standards. And yet, after nearly a decade in TV journalism, Ponce grew disillusioned with traditional media. It had become stale, he was bored, and he was getting further away from the people whose stories he wanted to tell. Ponce yearned to break free, so he did. He quit his job, moved his wife and newborn child back in with his parents, hopped into his car and became a rideshare driver full-time, while starting his storytelling project, the podcast Backseat Rider.
On the podcast, Ponce picks up riders in and around Chicago and they dive into conversations sparked by questions like “what’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?” and “what song has meant the most to you?” The paths those questions lead often take surprising turns with questions about favorite films and books often finding their way to discussions about family, passions, personal struggles, and more.
And people have taken notice. Since starting the project in October 2016, Backseat Rider has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times, with an average of about 30,000 downloads per episode.
We spoke to Ponce about his innovative approach to storytelling, and why listening matters. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
So, how did you get into this?
“I had a great job. I was on television everyday. But for me personally there was always a voice in my head telling me there was something more out there for me to do. And the voice never went away. I was up for a promotion at work…well, I thought I was up for a promotion. It went to someone else. To me it felt like the final kick from the universe reminding me to stop playing it safe and get out there and tell the types of stories I want to tell. Some people thought I was crazy. But I knew I had to do it. My wife supported me. From there it was a matter of coming up with a good plan and getting out there and doing it.”
Why the car?
“There’s something special about how it all happens. You let an app pair you up. Whoever ends up in the backseat of the car is the star of the show. You’re letting an algorithm determine who you talk to. What I’ve learned is, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has a story. A good story. And it is cliché, but you quickly realize how much we all have in common.
“Before all this started, I was driving home on Lakeshore drive and I looked out the window and saw another driver engaged in a lively conversation with his passenger, and I desperately wanted to know what they were saying and to capture some of that magic. And it just clicked. I knew I wanted a piece of that magic.”
Where is the strangest destination this journey has taken you?
“I picked up a kid in his early twenties in a fancy, upscale subdivision. About halfway through the ride I realized we had me taking him into a rougher part of the city to buy drugs. Between phone calls with his dealer, and driving through a part of town I didn’t feel very safe in, we talked about his most treasured possession, which was his Les Paul guitar, and his love for music. It was all very surreal, but made for great conversation and a great episode. People are always much more than you think they are.”
What’s surprised you the most about people during this journey?
“The thing that surprises me constantly is how shocked my passengers are that I’m listening to them aggressively. People aren’t used to be listened to. It’s confounding how rare it is to encounter people that actually listen to you in this world.”
Why is listening so important?
“It’s a lost art form. It truly is. People are always waiting for their turn to talk in life and on social media. It just leads to people talking around each other. You’d be amazed at how much people open up to you when they realize they have their undivided attention. You learn so much by shutting up sometimes, and just letting a person know that you’re there for them. It creates a real connection.”
Photo: Gregory Rothstein