Paul Gambaccini: Here, there and everywhere
Equally comfortable on Radios 1, 2, 3 or 4, Paul Gambaccini is one of those rare broadcasters who render questions of 'low-brow' and 'high-brow' irrelevant. He tells Ian Burrell how he's stayed fresh, even after 34 years in the business
Monday 09 April 2007
Who, a decade ago, would have thought it possible that the then controversial Paul Gambaccini would become the revered figurehead of the British radio industry?
Back then, the Anglicised New Yorker was horrified to find himself reviled by high-brow commentators and militant listeners alike. In spite of a PPE degree from Oxford, a vast knowledge of classical music and some well-worn keys on his Steinway piano, the presence of "The Great Gambo" on Radio 3 was seen by some as a symbol of the deterioration of broadcasting standards.
Yet later this month he will, once more, take to the stage at the Grosvenor House hotel in London's Park Lane to host the industry's raucous annual jamboree, the Sony Radio Academy Awards. In doing so, he will straddle the worlds of popular and classical music, of spoken word radio, of commercial and public service broadcasting - just as he has done on air.
A national broadcasting figure for 34 years, he was inducted into the Radio Academy Hall of Fame in 2005 and two years earlier won the title of Music Broadcaster of the Year at the Sonys, an event he compered. "The main reason I survived is I never peaked," is how he explains his extraordinary longevity.
It was his former colleague on Radio 1, David "Diddy" Hamilton, who, as long ago as 1977, identified his American colleague's enduring appeal. "I really envy people like you," Hamilton told Gambaccini. "We fade, while people like you are there for ever."
Gambaccini, 58, says: "I thought what an incredibly humble thing for him to say - he was a huge star in 1977 - but I began to see what he meant. People who become as big as he did inevitably go down because popular stardom requires an element of novelty, and if you are no longer novel you are no longer a star."
Hamilton now features on satellite station Big L and is half-time compere at Fulham Football Club. Gambaccini, meanwhile, sits with young guns such as Dermot O'Leary and Russell Brand in the Saturday evening schedule on Radio 2, Britain's biggest network, with his decade-old pop show America's Greatest Hits. He also presents on Radio 2's live classical music show, Friday Night is Music Night.
He agrees to this interview in spite of initial shock of mistakenly fearing he was to be questioned by Paul Burrell, the royal butler. Gambo had been due to be called as a prosecution witness at the collapsed Burrell trial, in relation to the 'rock''s possession of a number of CDs autographed by the Princess of Wales.
The presenter has a fabulous high-rise apartment on the South Bank of the Thames, close to the Royal Festival Hall. After taking a nap and putting on a brand new pink polo shirt, he steps out into the sunshine on his balcony to point out the landmarks in a stunning panorama that extends from the Gherkin to the London Eye.
Inside the flat, the walls are decorated with framed letters from Sir Paul McCartney, giant film posters and comic magazine covers. Shelves of CDs and vinyl records stretch from ceiling to floor, and one bookcase is dedicated to the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and other tomes he has compiled, documenting music that made the British and American charts.
As a student of radio, as well as a master practitioner in the medium, he has closely observed changes in the industry since he first went on air on Radio 1 on 30 September 1973.
"What's happened is that radio has been democratised and, in the process, mediocratised. I know that sounds so politically incorrect, but I mean it in a literal and manifestly true way," he says. "When you let people on air without as many skills as those who are already on, you are going to get radio that is less skilful. With the introduction of many more services, you are going to get more choice, but less professionalism - that's the trade off."
His own show involves the weekly downloading of the new Billboard chart hits, using the US version of iTunes. (which he accesses with his American credit card, which he has courtesy of having a New York apartment). The downloads he plays on Radio 2, alongside American hits of older vintage, prompt him to reflect: "If you had told me in 1973 that I was going to be doing my show this way in 2007 it would have sounded like science fiction."
Gambaccini is almost unique in having enjoyed commercial radio success and been a prominent figure on all of the BBC's four oldest networks. Yet it might not have happened without Elton John. Having left Oxford, Gambo had the chance to attend law school at Harvard or Yale, but was diverted by the chance of writing for Rolling Stone magazine from England. An exclusive interview with a young Elton ("I am so grateful to him for giving an interview and not being mean to me"), made his reputation, paving the way to meeting John Walters - John Peel's producer - and a presenting role on Radio 1.
Though he seems content with his place in the radio pantheon, he is still resentful of those controllers who have sought to introduce such radical change to their networks that they have needlessly destroyed careers. Gambo has survived such bloodletting only by deploying diverse skills.
After leaving Radio 1, he reinvented himself as a presenter on Classic FM. He has hosted the prestigious Ivor Novello music-writing awards for the past two decades and was also a television film critic for 13 years on TV-am and GMTV.
"I was sacrificed in both the great Radio 1 and Radio 4 purges by controllers Matthew Bannister and James Boyle," he admits. "It's always fascinated me that whenever the Matthew Bannister era at Radio 1 is ever discussed, no one ever mentions that I never appeared again, because I managed to avoid all the 'I quit! - You're fired!' nonsense that stuck to many presenters. I just went away."
Though he concedes that "sometimes new brooms like to sweep clean and that's part of the business", he thinks the audience is not always given due consideration. "The controllers who sweep clean don't think about the hurt it causes the listeners, who don't understand there has been a controller change, but notice the absence of half a dozen people they used to like."
Indeed, he claims that famous presenters are sometimes not consulted over career-defining changes. Gambaccini featured on the long-running Radio 4 arts show Kaleidoscope, which was axed in 1998. When recording his last show he discovered he had been earmarked for presenting a weekly music show on Radio 4 - only for BBC bosses to drop the idea and direct him to Radio 2.
"I had had a weekly programme put on the schedule, then removed without being consulted. Nor was I consulted about whether I should be a Radio 2 artist. We are all victims of politics. Imagine what goes on behind closed doors!"
He is, nonetheless, deeply grateful to the former Radio 2 controller Jim Moir and his successor Lesley Douglas. Moir's interest in Gambo came in spite of the "unsatisfactory experience" at Radio 3, where the American was part of controller Nicholas Kenyon's disastrous attempt to reposition the network. Gambaccini had quit a successful role at Classic FM in 1995 to rejoin the BBC, but then found himself knee-deep in negative media comment ("miscast and miserable" - Daily Telegraph).
"My presence on R3 had become a symbol which was attracting attention for things that had nothing to do with the content of the programme," he says. "For me, the worst threat of my Radio 3 experience was that I might peak in terms of press coverage. I was getting phenomenal broadsheet attention and I thought to myself, if this goes on I will be too known for this and it might endanger other things."
Moir said as much when he came down to the studio to scope out Gambaccini for a slot on Radio 2. "He was remarkably honest - he would like to take me on, but didn't want to hire anyone known for being a loser. So it depended on how I emerged from the Radio 3 thing."
In the event, Gambo wasn't irreparably damaged by his two-year stint at R3, and nearly a decade later is comfortable at R2, mixing music from modern artists such as Amy Winehouse and The Fratellis with tracks from idols such as Neil Young and Ella Fitzgerald. As for Radio 3: "I now present the BBC Jazz awards, broadcast on Radios 2 and 3, so I'm there anyway."
Gambaccini describes himself as "lost to Radio 4" despite making documentaries for the station each year. Even so, he starts the day with Mark Damazer's network. "I wake to Today, if I'm early enough it is to the new 5.30am sweep, where you get - bam, bam, bam - the news headlines, weather, newspaper review and business highlights and I feel I'm set for the day."
As for the other presenters Gambaccini admires, he has recently given the issue much thought, voting in the new Broadcaster's Broadcaster category for the Sonys.
Able to vote for three, he ruled out Terry Wogan ("I enjoy him, but we are totally different") and Kenny Everett ("he didn't influence me, though he was the funniest man I ever knew").
He chose Alastair Cooke ("This is such a beautifully expressive language ... , and of all the people I've ever heard on radio he has probably used it as well as anybody for impact and effect") and John Peel ("I osmosed so many of his values, the greatest of which is, stick by your guns").
But the presenter who has influenced him the most is Alan "Fluff' Freeman, who he praises for masterful word economy. Gambo's "all-time favourite introduction of a record" was Freeman's announcement that Kate Bush's 1978 hit 'Wuthering Heights' was no longer at number one: "The Wuthering has Withered".
Gambaccini is a fan of younger presenters Zane Lowe, who he thinks embodies the ethos of John Peel, and Wes Butters, who hosted the Radio 1 chart show before being fired. "They got rid of Wes, which I thought was an incredibly foolish and depressing move. But I don't make the talent decisions and Wes won a Sony silver last year with his new radio station [Galaxy Manchester]."
When Gambo returns to Grosvenor House on 30 April he will be hosting the Sonys for the ninth year in a row. He has presided over many memorable moments - seeing Terry Wogan given a lifetime achievement award by Dame Edna Everage and sharing the stage with music legends such as Alice Cooper and Roger Daltrey.
One year, Keith Allen used his slot to make crude jokes about Gambaccini's sexuality, only for the compere to put the diminutive actor down by announcing a new award category for "short-form" radio.
Then there was the moment when a female radio executive stormed on stage in support of former Kiss FM presenter Bam Bam, not realising she had been sitting in chocolate cake.
Then there was the time Christian O'Connell won Sony Gold and used the moment to mercilessly berate his rival Johnny Vaughan.
Gambo somehow maintains order and has his own Oscars-style way of keeping acceptance speeches short, although he does not have an orchestra to shut up winners. "If somebody is going on too long, transported by the wonder of the moment, I will try to bring them down to earth by caterwauling a recent number one record."
Gambo is now an institution. So, at least this year he will not have to resort to the uncharacteristic, expletive-laced, speech that shocked the room but won over a boozy crowd when he made his debut in 1999.
"I see more ex-bosses than I have ex-lovers... unlike some of my ex-lovers, some of you have really fucked me," he told the inebriated Grosvenor. "That got the biggest laugh of my life. I couldn't continue because people were laughing so much. I thought to myself 'Oh My God, this is the peak of my life as a stage presenter, it doesn't get any better than this.'"
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