My Life in Media: Paul Gambaccini

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The Independent Online

The "Professor of Pop" Paul Gambaccini, 59, began broadcasting on BBC Radio 1 thirty five years ago. Originally from New York, he was the Rolling Stone UK correspondent when an interview with Elton John brought him to the attention of Radio 1. He has since been awarded a Sony award for Music Broadcaster of the Year and the Radio Academy's Outstanding Contribution to Music Radio award, and is a regular presenter on Radio 2, 4 and Classic FM. He is also well known for his philanthropy and hosted Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday dinner in London. Tonight he is hosting the BBC Jazz Awards. He lives in London's South Bank and the Columbus Circle, New York.

What inspired you to embark on a career in the media?

Having nothing to do on activities night on Freshman Week at Dartmouth College [in New Hampshire, US]. I had gone to Dartmouth because it had the largest radio station in the country run by students. I wasn't particularly interested in being on it, I just wanted to be near it. But the minute I went in I took a voice test, and we were away.

When you were 15 years old, which newspaper did your family get, and did you read it?

Oh yes. The New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Journal American, New York World Telegram & Sun, Sunday Herald, New York Herald Tribune, and I subscribed to The Sporting News. My mother would buy the Times and the News to read during the day. The Journal American and World Telegram were evening papers and my father would read those on the way home. Also, I was a paper boy for The Bridgeport Post and The Norwalk Hour. We would also get The Westport Town Crier.

And what were your favourite TV and radio programmes?

My TV viewing really started to go down after I was about 14. The days of live TV were being replaced by recorded TV, and live plays were being replaced by filmed series, which I found less exciting, although I did like a law series called The Defenders, starring E G Marshall. I watched Walter Cronkite do the CBS Network News. I was listening to about three hours of radio a day. My two favourite DJs in the afternoon would be Dandy Dan Daniel and Big Dan Ingram. My all-time favourite B Mitchell Read.

Describe your job.

I am a lucky man because I get to make radio programmes that I want to do, and I'm in charge of the content. So, for better or worse, what you hear is the real me. At the moment, I'm heard weekly on Radio 2, and I will be heard again for 20 weeks on Classic FM, beginning 17 August, and I've just finished a series of Counterpoint on Radio 4.

What's the first media that you turn to in the mornings?

Radio 4. If I'm awake at 5.30am, which I often am.

Do you consult any media sources during the day?

The minute I get up, I go to The New York Times website and I download the crossword! I also read the columnists. I subscribe to The Herald Tribune so I don't have to read the news off The New York Times website, because they're usually in The Herald Tribune, which is, after all, the international version of The New York Times.

And what do you tune into when you get home?

I work from home most days and the evening is when I go out. I don't watch television. I had a conversation with Stephen Fry about this once, we were at a BBC Christmas party and I said, "I feel like a fraud, I don't watch television", and he said, "Neither do I, it's too much like work." He summed it up perfectly.

Do you get any online music or check any websites during the day?

Once a day I check MediaGuardian for the radio news. I check the BBC website and The New York Times website a dozen times a day.

What is the best thing about your job?

The fact that I can arrange my own schedule.

And the worst?

BBC budget cuts, and the seeming lack of realisation in the minds of the BBC hierarchy and the Government that radio is actually a crucial part of the glue that holds this society together.

How do you feel you influence the media?

I know that in my career that I've been fortunate enough to introduce several recording artists to the British public. That is always a great pleasure.

What's the proudest achievement in your working life?

I have two. Co-hosting Live Aid and that my career has been one of such duration.

What's your most embarrassing moment?

I did burp on air once.

What's your Sunday paper and do you have a favourite magazine?

On Sunday I'm still working on The Weekend Herald Tribune and the weekend Financial Times, which I get on a Saturday. I read Billboard off the website, because that's where I get all my charts for my radio show. The two best magazines are the New Yorker and the Economist.

Name the one career ambition you want to realise before you retire?

To not retire.

What would you do if you didn't work in the media?

When I was at Oxford University, before I got involved with Radio 1, I was intending to go to law school. In 1970, when I graduated from Dartmouth, we were told that the future leaders of America would be lawyers. Had I gone to Yale Law School, I would have met the Clintons there.

Who in the media do you most admire and why?

Orson Welles. He achieved at the highest level in film, radio, and stage. And I love people who can cross over to various media.

The CV

1970: Writes for Rolling Stone after a PPE degree at Oxford

1973: Makes Radio 1 debut, going on to present its US chart show for 11 years

1974: Presents Kaleidoscope on Radio 4 until it finishes in 1998

1983: Founding member of the TV-am team, remains on breakfast TV until 1996

1992: Joins Classic FM on itslaunch day

1995: Joins BBC Radio 3, increasing its audience, but the station is accused of becoming too populist

1998: Returns to Classic FM, where he still presents, after a spell at Jazz FM; begins America's Greatest Hits on BBC Radio 2

2008: Chairs Counterpoint music quiz on Radio 4

The BBC Jazz Awards will be broadcast on BBC2, Tuesday 10.30pm; highlights on Radio 3's Jazz Line-Up, Saturday 4pm.

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