'Go to a pub and be DJ on the most unpopular night'

Charlie Gillett is a radio DJ and writer. He presents World on 3 on BBC Radio 3, and was the first UK DJ to focus on world music. In 2006 he got the John Peel Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music Radio. His new compilation album, Sound of the World presents Beyond the Horizon, is out now

What did you want to be as a child?

Not a school teacher.

What did you realistically think you'd end up doing?

Music and sport were my passions, but it didn't seem possible to make a living out of either, so I had no idea. I just trudged through my O- and A-levels.

Did you go to university?

Very bizarrely, I went to Cambridge, where I read economics but didn't understand it; it was my dad's idea. I got a Third, even though I went to all the lectures. I then went to Columbia University in New York and did a postgraduate course in sociology of education. I suppose I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn't as dumb as my Third suggested. I wrote a thesis on the ways in which black music was surfacing in America, how it had been copied by white people, and was making its own way.

You then returned to the UK and became a teacher?

Yes! But I was also knocking on doors trying to get into the music industry. I wrote to Record Mirror and suggested a new column, which I got. I also wanted to turn my thesis into a book, but publishers here said it wasn't a subject and no one would review it. But an American publisher approached me, and the book, The Sound of the City, came out in 1970 and got extraordinary coverage.

How did you get into radio?

I was horrified by the terrible music Radio London was playing, and wrote about it in my column. I was called in and ended up with my own show. I was paid so little you would laugh.

Do you consider yourself to be successful?

Yes, when I moved to Capitol Radio in 1980, I was paid £300 a week for a two-hour show. It was good money and I bought a house.

You also set up a record label, Oval. Was it easy?

It wasn't that complicated. We registered a name, went to Louisiana, put together an album. It was simpler than opening a shop.

What's the best decision you have ever made?

I've hardly ever made one.

What motivates you?

Curiosity and interest in the unknown, and wanting to sort out what's good and share it and get feedback.

Who are your heroes?

Allen Toussaint, the pianist and producer, and Ivan Duran, who works with the Garifuna people in Belize.

How do I get to be where you are?

These days, lots of people carve out niches for themselves as DJs in pubs and clubs. So go to one and persuade them to give you their least popular night. Then make yourself known with Facebook. Getting on the radio is the next jump.