If Frank Sinatra were alive to introduce Urban Wheels Awards host Randi Payton he might well sing, “a pauper, a poet, a musician, a boxer, a writer, a prince and a king.” Maybe not royalty but he is founder and head of On Wheels Media recently morphed into Decisive Media whose publications reach 5 million readers.
Born in the Camden, N.J. projects where he had to fight to survive, Payton was headed for the Olympic boxing trials when a life-threatening illness suffered in Vietnam axed that ambition. But he kept on fighting, first to be a poet, then a music impresario (he started several rap bands) and to be the first in his family to go to college. While in school he interned at a black newspaper and radio station. That gave him enough confidence to slip around security at the Washington Post and pitch story ideas until the paper finally gave him some freelance work that turned into weekly assignments while he was still in school.
Payton went on to become an editor for the Afro-American Newspapers, recognized at the time as the best of the nation’s black newspapers. He noted the absence of auto coverage in the paper and not coincidently, the paucity of car maker advertising. He attacked the first problem by starting a weekly auto column that he soon syndicated for free to 200 other minority publications. The other problem, advertising, was more complex. For years, auto advertising to minorities consisted of a person of color in a print ad that ran in a few selected publications. But, as one car company advertising director found out at the cost of his job, it did not include Harry Belafonte holding Petula Clark’s hand on national television. And, that singer Lou Rawls was deemed too black to be an auto spokesman.
There was a lot of work to be done. Payton’s task as he saw it was threefold: One was to help the car companies see not a demographic but a culture that needed to be engaged on its own terms, to replace stereotypes with facts not only about the black community’s growing affluence and new car buying power but with appreciation for the history and role automobiles played in that culture. Second was to attract and hold an audience that would merit car company advertising Although blacks bought them in impressive numbers, no luxury autos were being advertised in minority media at that time. Third, he committed to fostering diversity in the auto industry’s workforce, advertising, communications, and philanthropy.
His On Wheels Media Company took on all three missions and became the first national media company dedicated to educating ethnic minorities about the auto industry, as well as its products and services. With the help of BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Chevrolet and GMC, he launched the first issue of African-American On Wheels 15 years ago, distributing 500,000 copies in newspapers across the U.S., including the Detroit Free Press, Detroit News and Washington Post. At the same time he launched what is now www.onwheelsinc.com, the first web site by an auto magazine. Since then he has added Latinos On Wheels, Asians On Wheels and a digital edition of On Wheels. His editorial formula for these publications is culturally relevant content and reliable information to help minorities make informed vehicle purchase decisions.
To keep his message and market before the industry, Payton, introduced the annual Urban Wheels Awards four years ago. It is held in conjunction with the North American international Auto Show to honor industry diversity initiatives as well as the Urban Car and Urban Truck of the year. A festive gala attracting stars, celebrities and industry luminaries, it has been dubbed the “Oscars” of the automotive industry, In addition, he founded the nonprofit Edward Davis Education Foundation named for the first African-American to receive a new car franchise in the United States. Since 1999, EDEF has trained and mentored more than 350 interns and awarded more than $400,000 in scholarships to young people pursuing careers in communications and the auto industry.
Still jabbing away at strengthening minority media, Payton recently introduced Decisive Media to extend his successful editorial formula and help minorities make smart purchase decisions in a range of consumer goods. His new Decisive Magazine covers multiple other markets as well as autos.