Since I came to live on the Costa Blanca 9 years ago, I’ve seen some English radio stations come and go, and others prosper and grow. Many of the most successful ones have been set up by or with the help of Rai Woods, to such an extent that he’s known across the Costa Blanca media community as ‘Radio Rai.’ For several years, Rai was the owner of CBFM radio station, but when he was let down at short notice by some presenters in June 2016, he decided that, rather than keep the station going, he’d collaborate with Richie Sparks, owner and founder of Big FM, and as much of a techie geek as Rai himself. I caught up with Richie, Rai and some of the station’s most popular presenters recently, and it soon became clear why BIG FM is now the Costa Blanca’s most popular and fastest growing English speaking radio station.
Richie set up Big FM four years ago from a small studio in a concrete shed in his garden in Catral, broadcasting to around 20 people. Just over a year ago, it moved to larger, purpose-built premises in the campo, and with new transmitters in Gran Alacant, La Marina and Catral, it’s doubled its coverage. Big FM entertains listeners from Benidorm in the North of the Costa Blanca down to La Manga on the border with Murcia, and all over the world online. Despite its impressive reach, Richie describes Big FM as a community radio station, rather than a commercial venture. This is clear from the way the station operates. Big FM has no reps selling advertising – in fact 90% of the station’s advertisers approach Richie for air time, once they realise the reach of the station and the calibre of its presenters.
All the broadcasters are volunteers, who recruit their own sponsors to pay their wages. Richie gives them air time and guidance, because he believes that for local radio to have a future, it needs new talent coming through all the time. Big FM does not buy in syndicated shows, so its team of 21 presenters is the largest on the Costa Blanca. In fact the only person on the station who knows everyone who works there is Richie himself! However, he does try to get as many people together as possible at the station’s summer barbecue and Christmas party. Richie aims for a family feel at Big FM, and this came through loud and clear on my visit. However, Rai offered some words of wisdom. ‘If you’re invited to the barbecue, and someone asks if you have your mobile with you, say yes, or you’re likely to end up in the pool!’
The presenters are indeed merciless with their mickey taking, and Richie looks on like a proud, indulgent father, joining in occasionally, but mostly observing and enjoying. When Dean Alexanda totalled the station’s car while he was waiting for his own to be repaired, you’d have thought Richie’s smile would have slipped, but no, he came up with a nickname. Dean is now known as ‘Crash Alexanda’ to everyone at the station – and anyone who hears the story. It may not be too long before Big FM’s legion of loyal listeners forget Dean’s real Christian name altogether!
The station’s youngest presenter, Zac Lloyd Rush has also come in for some on air horseplay. On one memorable occasion, Zac and Dean had been joking about presenting the show in a mankini to keep cool. Nick Gold turned up for his afternoon show, and just as Zac was in full flow, he stripped off his clothes and stood there resplendent in a lime green mankini and nothing else but a smile. It was one of those ‘Thank God this is radio’ moments, and it’s still the talk of Big FM, even in the depths of the worst Mediterranean winter in living memory.
The broadcast system at Big FM is designed with the presenter in mind, and Richie does his best not to interfere with how the DJs want to run the show, although he’s always ready with help, advice and endless cups of tea. That said, he’s no nursemaid. Once the Big FM volunteers have shown they have an aptitude for radio, they’re in at the deep end. Zac had never done radio in his life, and he was relieved when Richie said he’d train him before he went live. He did – for an hour or so on Monday and Tuesday, and on Wednesday, Zac was live without a safety net. There’s a reason for this though, as Richie explained.
I’m here to fix the things that these guys break, and help them to get started and grow as presenters. The last thing I want is to turn out clones of me, and if you spend too long on training, that’s what you’re likely to end up with. They have to develop their own style, otherwise they’re just another DJ and Big FM is just another radio station. We have a good mix of presenters, with one thing in common – they’re all nuts!
Richie is not one to rest on his laurels – he’s always looking for gaps in the system and ways to increase Big FM’s involvement with the local community. He has an open door policy – anyone can come to the station for help, whether for individuals or the community as a whole. Recently, Big FM has announced partnerships with Villa Martin Plaza to publicise their summer entertainments programme, and the Valencia Tourist Board and Association of Journalists in Alicante Province to promote tourism in the region.
The station’s latest innovation is to introduce live, on air chats with the presenters, and they were working on this when I was there. Richie is always prepared for all eventualities, and has back up systems for his back up systems. However, he’s also notoriously impatient to get things done. He did pray for patience once, but said he wanted it immediately! Rather than wait for the shiny new telephone hybrid amplifier to arrive, Rai and Richie decided to try to repair one they already had, and I was privileged to be in on that magical moment. The discussion went something like this:
Rai: Is it working at all?
Richie: Yes, I’ll plug it in and show you. (Plugs it in, big bang, cloud of smoke, one blogger, two presenters and two techie geeks need scraping off the cieling). Oh – it was working!
Rai: How old is this anyway?
Richie: About 6 years old.
Rai: In that case, it’s far too young to smoke!
On that note, I made my excuses and left, as they say, but I left with an abiding impression – and a stitch in my side from all the laughs. Big FM is one big happy radio family, with Richie Sparks at its head as the proud parent. And it’s getting bigger all the time. Why not get in touch and see if the Big FM family can help with your business or community project? Or just listen in to one of Big FM’s talented presenters and bring a smile to your day or sparkling company to your evening. You can find the daily schedules here.