This Chicago News Anchor Quit His Job to Drive for Lyft and Start a Podcast
Everyone has a story.
That’s something journalists learn quickly. Everybody’s got a story to tell.
Ultimately, that’s why Anthony Ponce quit his job as a Chicago TV news anchor and reporter last year to pursue his passion project.
Now he drives for the ride-sharing service Lyft and interviews his passengers about their lives, producing a podcast called Backseat Rider. His passengers tell him things — crazy, real, profound, thoughtful, unexpected and true things.
“Everybody’s an expert on their own life,” says Ponce, 39. “So-called ordinary people have some of the most interesting stories that exist. I like being the one that’s pulling this oral history out of them.”
Oral Histories of Everyday People
Ponce spent 13 years in TV news, much of it as a reporter and weekend anchor for an NBC station in Chicago.
He grew disillusioned with it. In secret, he’d started to drive for Lyft in his spare time, testing out his idea: “I wanted to make sure people would talk to me on tape.”
And talk to him they do. “You’d be surprised how many people say yes.”
Ponce was inspired by hit podcasts like “Serial” and “This American Life,” and by the legacy of Studs Terkel, a Chicago author and broadcaster known for his oral histories of everyday Americans.
So in July 2016, he left his TV job to launch his new venture. It was only four months after the birth of his son, Theo. But his wife, Maggie, gave him her blessing to take the risk.
Nowadays, Ponce tools around Chicago in a Subaru Forester compact SUV, picking up Lyft passengers and ferrying them to and fro.
Not everyone wants to talk. Some are fixated on their phones or off in their own world.
“I just start chatting, making small talk,” he says. “That gives you a good gauge of whether a person’s interested in speaking to you.”
If they seem open to it, Ponce gives them his little spiel about how he’s also a journalist who does a storytelling podcast. There are also little signs in the car explaining what Backseat Rider is.
Sometimes he’ll prompt them by asking his “question of the week.”
What is your most valued possession?
Have you ever feared for your life?
Have you ever witnessed anything paranormal?
What motivates you in tough times?
Do you have any rituals?
Is there a single day that changed your life forever?
What keeps you up at night?
The back seat of the Subaru functions as a miniature recording studio. Ponce keeps his eyes on the road, his hands on the wheel. He listens carefully and keeps the conversation going.
His passengers — business execs, bartenders, students, strippers — can be stunningly candid, especially since Ponce doesn’t use their faces or names.
He recently wrapped up his 53rd podcast.
Making It Work Financially
The financial part of this gets a little tricky. Following your dream is great, but Ponce walked away from a well-paying job, and Chicago’s not a cheap place to raise a family.
Here’s how he and his wife are making it work, for now.
They moved out of their house and into the second floor of his parents’ house, also in Chicago. That’s supposed to be temporary. They’re renting out their old house, so they get income from that.
Ponce works two days a week for Morning Dose, a syndicated morning news show that runs in a half-dozen major TV markets.
And of course, he drives for Lyft, which allows him to set his own hours.
“I drive two or three days a week,” he explains. “If I drive all day, it usually comes out to about 100 bucks, give or take. That’s five longer rides or 15 shorter rides.”
“I’ll usually call it a day after 100 bucks. I get fatigued because I’m multitasking. I’m really aggressively listening to these people.”
The trickiest part has been figuring out the business of podcasting, a growing industry. He produces one episode of Backseat Rider per week. He’s earning some advertising money from it, and he’s trying to build on that.
“Between all those things, I’m able to make it work,” he said. “We don’t want to stay with my parents for more than a year, so the pressure is on to grow the podcast audience.”
“I consider myself an entrepreneur. I’m really fortunate to have a wife and parents who believe in this project.”
A Little Advice
Ponce’s advice for anyone who’s thinking about starting a podcast: “Focus on the quality of the show before anything else. Find your voice. Advertising and promotion should come after creating a quality show.”
Ponce’s advice for anyone who’s thinking about driving for Lyft: “On your first day, don’t start in rush hour or at night. Get to know the app, get into a groove. Start in the off hours.”
Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. His favorite Backseat Rider podcast is the super crazy one where the passenger turned out to be going on a drug run — all of it caught on tape.