The business community is abuzz after Julie Roehm’s recent interview with renowned attorney, media executive, and entrepreneur David Payne on the former’s podcast The Conversational.
Roehm’s podcast features interviews with some of the most successful outside-the-box thinkers in the business world. This week, David Payne spoke about the unconventional career path that took him from serving as an assistant US attorney at the Department of Justice to media CEO to investigative podcast host.
One of the most interesting aspects of Payne’s career is how he was able to follow multiple passions, turning them into profitable businesses with surprising agility. Julie Roehm has also proven herself to be an agile marketer and executive. Both host and guest have found success in numerous industries, started their own businesses, and launched podcasts.
Listen to the full episode here. Or, find key takeaways from the interview below.
“You Survive”: Overcoming Early Struggles
David Payne’s life was defined by his childhood years, which took a sharp turn from idyllic to horrific when he was a teenager. Tensions overflowed in his home, forcing him to flee and live with a friend. A few years later, during his first year at Duke University, Payne’s father took his own life.
The ensuing legal struggle lasted for years and drained his family emotionally and financially. Although obsessed with sports, he decided to become a lawyer to protect those he loved from ever having to endure what his family had been through.
“If you get a law degree, you can protect yourself from some of this stuff,” Payne said. “And that actually was a kind of a driving force for me going to law school.”
Although he was forced to grow up quickly, he made the most of a bad situation by meeting it head-on. As a survivor, Payne learned to adapt quickly to change and do what was necessary to flourish. This skill would define his career and, eventually, allow him to pursue his dream of working in sports.
“Getting Your Foot in the Door”
Within a few years of graduating from law school, David Payne was investigating cases for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. But that wasn’t his passion—yet. After three years in courtrooms, he left to try to start fresh as a sports lawyer. He chose a broadcasting group, Turner Sports, without knowing where to start and did whatever he could to get his foot in the door.
Payne shared his “nefarious” plan for pursuing your dreams with listeners:
“The next step of the nefarious plan to do what you want in life is to volunteer. There was a guy who was the Sports Lawyer who didn't like to do all the dirty work. He just wanted to be the Sports Lawyer. So I would volunteer to do all the sh*tty work…. And when that attorney moved on to a business role, I was there ready to step in and take his job.”
Payne understood that grunt work and networking are stepping stones to success, especially if you don’t have experience in the field you’re passionate about. If you can combine your passion and work hard, you’ll soon be asked to step up.
Payne thrived at Turner and rose quickly to Vice President of Business Affairs, managing all the legal matters for the Atlanta Braves, Hawks, and Thrashers.
From Lawyer to Business Mogul
In Atlanta, David Payne had proved to be much more than a sports lawyer. He was a natural manager with a knack for digital media—an emerging trend. His efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was soon chosen to manage the digital joint venture between CNN and Sports Illustrated. After that, he became Senior Vice President of CNN.
Just five years prior, he was volunteering to negotiate urinal signage for the Omni stadium in Atlanta.
Payne spent eight years at CNN, but he admits to struggling with a common issue of the era: how to grow a digital business primarily supported by ad revenue. All of the other major publishers were struggling with the same thing. In the midst of this evolving business climate, Payne saw an opportunity.
So, he left his perch atop the mountain at CNN and started his own media company.
“The Whole Landscape Shifts”
Payne left CNN to start Short Tail media in early 2008.
“What we set out to do at Short Tail, was to try to coalesce the industry, the publishing industry, at least around a way to clear ad inventory that wasn't so detrimental to the health of those businesses,” Payne said.
But Payne’s agility and foresight were no match for what the market had in store. In less than a year, digital media would change forever due to the great recession and the rise of Facebook and social media as the drivers of digital media and advertising.
“You've got all these great plans. You've got all these great ideas. And then, the whole landscape shifts.”
But Payne wasn’t disheartened by the short lifespan of his company. He had learned to follow his passion and instincts, which would bring his career full circle—not as a digital consultant or an executive, but as a cold case investigator and podcast host.
After a brief stint working at Gannett/USA Today Network, Payne decided to pivot once again to merge his knowledge of digital media with a passion for investigative work he developed as a prosecuting attorney.
Payne started a new media company, Rainstream Media, to produce his podcast, Somebody, Somewhere. The podcast documents his investigations of cold case murders. He took inspiration from the hit podcast Serial, giving the format his own unique twist.
“You talk about checking a lot of boxes or pulling a lot of threads through in my life,” he said. “I'd done investigations as a prosecutor. I had been involved with, and failed miserably, at podcasts at CNN in the early days. And then I saw what Serial did….I think this was a real breakthrough, where it is no longer about third-person storytelling. It's about first-person storytelling.”
Payne’s podcast features in-depth investigative work done by himself and a former CNN producer. It has now finished its third season and is one of the highest-rated investigative podcasts currently in production.
Finding Success in the Middle Ground between Necessity and Passion
David Payne’s fascinating life story and career paint a picture of a businessman who learned at an early age that while necessities may at times trump your passions, they do not lock doors behind you.
Payne’s aspiration to become a lawyer was born of a need to survive and take care of his family. But he never let it drown his love of sports. In fact, he leveraged his experience to attain leadership positions at some of the leading sports media companies in the country.
He also learned that when the market doesn’t go your way, your passions and the people you’ve met along your career path can motivate you to jump-start an entirely new venture.
David Payne is currently the President of Rainstream Media. His podcast, Somebody, Somewhere, has just released its third season. Listen to all three seasons here.
About The Conversational with Julie Roehm
The Conversational podcast is hosted by Julie Roehm and features conversations with experts and thought leaders from around the world. While Julie Roehm is a well-known business executive and Advertising Hall of Famer, her podcast focuses on successful people's personal journeys regardless of industry.
Each episode features a different guest and delves into their career journey, experiences, and lessons learned. The podcast also provides listeners with actionable advice and tips to help them achieve their own career goals.Listen to more episodes of The Conversational with Julie Roehm free today.
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