Radio Season – Paul Gambaccini

One of the most defining voices in British radio, for over half a century writer, broadcaster and music journalist Paul Gambaccini has been presiding over the ever changing musical landscape with an insightful, informed reverence which has made him one of the most influential broadcasters of his generation. Growing up in the Bronx of New York, there were very little cultural influences despite living in the country which conceived the phenomenon of rock and roll. This was all about to change in 1963 when American radio stations started playing the new English sound of The Beatles which was heralded as the most significant event in the development of popular culture. It was as a result of this that the young Paul Gambaccini had a great epiphany and instead of embracing the patriotism of 1960’s America, he realised that his passions laid further afield.

Press play, below, to listen to the full interview


Making his way to London towards the end of the sixties, Gambaccini found work writing for the popular Rolling Stone magazine in 1970 at what became a pivotal era for music and the roots of music journalism were just beginning to take hold. This was the era of flower power, Bowie, Pink Floyd and music journalism took on a harder edge. Identifying with the boom in British culture, he took an increasing analytical approach to the events in music which were now unfolding. This coincided with a subtle shift at the newly formed BBC Radio 1 where music journalism was slowly becoming recognised as the audience took an extra fascination with the inner workings of the music industry. Joining the station in 1973 as the music reporter for the John Peel show Rockspeak gave Paul a taste of the exciting, fresh network which was merely six years into a reign which has spanned the generations. 


From its very conception, Radio 1 has always attempted to celebrate and champion a whole range of different musical styles and genres while still upholding their fulfilment of popular music. It was always agreed that daytime radio should feature contemporary music from the official chart where most of their audience was tuning in. To preside over such matters of pop culture, an array of popular, engaging presenters from Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis dominated the airwaves on what was considered prime time daytime radio. However, to legitimise this, a group of elite musical broadcasters were required to appeal to the ardent, educated music fan who demanded something more stimulating. This was the start of a tenure which would last for over twenty years before Paul fell victim to the 1993 restructure of Radio 1 spearheaded by new executive Matthew Bannister who was brought in to reinstate the station’s 18 – 30 demographic.


Appreciating and acknowledging this situation, Paul didn’t bemoan the changing landscape. Instead he ploughed his efforts into a brand new challenge which would take him in an entirely different direction. Embracing the whole broad spectrum of music, classical music has always been one of Paul’s finest passions and in 1992 he was one of the first voices to be heard on the new commercial radio station Classical FM. As a broadcaster, Paul insists that there’s very little correlation between classical and pop but with a broad appreciation and understanding of both genres, it was easy for him to switch between both disciplines.  Remaining on Classical FM for two years, Gambaccini then returned to the station in 1997 and then again in 2007 to front Paul Gambaccini’s Hall of Heroes, a series of personal appreciations of artists and composers who have touched him the most. This epitomises his breadth of knowledge of the wide ranging musical landscape and cemented his status as one of Britain’s leading voices in music.


These musical expertises were gradually becoming recognised on a national scale and in 1993 Gambaccini was selected to front the feature length documentary marking the thirty year career of the legendary Cilla Black. Having known Cilla since the early eighties, Paul already had an informed knowledge on her career, yet what he hadn’t realised was the incredibly close relationship between Cilla and her husband turned manager Bobby Willis. As the presenter of the documentary, it was up to Paul to find a unique angle on a story which was already well documented within the public eye. However, what was possibly less known was Bobby’s significant contribution to making Cilla into the supreme entertainer which she became. Essentially this was the archetypal love story between two people which became one of the most potent in showbusiness and for a music journalist like Paul, this was goldust. 


As a writer, Gambaccini has also helped compile books surrounding the official singles chart which first began in 1952. This was a mammoth project to document over half a century of popular music and categorising every artist into alphabetical order. In this sense Paul Gambaccini isn’t just a broadcaster but also an unrivalled authority on pop culture and one of the leading voices in music journalism. To cover over five decades of music in one book was a somewhat impossible task but as opposed to similar literature surrounding music, cataloguing the charts is devoid from ambiguity and therefore as an editor, Paul was merely concerned with facts. Over two decades on, these books play a significant role in charting the phenomenons, fashions and fads within music and remain a historical artefact to the ever changing musical landscape.


History was repeating itself in January 2015 when he launched another radio station Greatest Hits Radio available on over fifty DAB and analogue frequencies across the UK. Paul believes that the birth of digital radio in Britain is the most significant advancement within the medium for generations and is excited about the healthy competition between an endless spectrum of stations catering for bespoke audiences. No longer is it necessary to cater for a universal audience because with such a diverse array of digital content, there’s something for everyone. Paul is emphatically passionate about Greatest Hits Radio and in what appears to be a crowded market, the station offers a slice of unadulterated nostalgia to compliment the mundane daily rat race. It seems that the advent of digital and internet radio has spurred a renaissance for the audio medium which Paul remains at the very heart of.


Paul Gambaccini is among an elite class of individuals whose achievements to public life are too vast to merely cover in just one podcast. A polymath of entertainment who has been present at each and every musical landmark of the past half century, constantly charting and celebrating the changing face of entertainment. Equally at home in a television studio as in a radio hub, Paul Gambaccini has earned his status as a bonafide broadcasting legend and from the suburbs of New York to the beating heart of London, he’s done it all. From a personal perspective, Paul was part of the reason why I was drawn to the glamorous world of entertainment when I sat down to watch the Cilla Black: Through The Years documentary almost thirty years ago. Therefore there’s a tinge of synergy that in 2022 I was able to welcome him onto my podcast. It was a great honour to interview the legendary Paul Gambaccini and with such a diverse and enriching career behind him, it’s fascinating to see how this story shall end.