Update: On 20 February 2020, Dean Alexanda, who is mentioned several times in the article, passed away suddenly and too soon, leaving family, friends and fans across the Costa Blanca shocked and saddened. I’ve updated the article so the information in it is current. It’s dedicated to Dean’s memory, with my love. It was a pleasure to know you, Deano. I bet the party has already started where you are now. Rest in peace, honey.
Since I came to live on the Costa Blanca 12 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 and one of the station’s most popular presenters with his regular Country Rodeo show. When he was let down at short notice by some of the presenters in June 2016, he decided to collaborate with Richie Sparks, owner and founder of Big Radio Spain, and as much of a techie geek as Rai is himself.
Richie set up the station as Big FM seven years ago, from a small studio in a concrete shed in his garden in Catral, broadcasting to around 20 people. Just over four years 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.
In 2018, Big Radio Spain moved to new premises in the heart of Cuidad Quesada, and since then, it’s increased its involvement with local communities. When the gota fria hit the Vega Baja area in September 2019, causing damage all over the region, the station was at the forefront of the push to get immediate aid to families who had lost everything in the extreme weather conditions. They are always willing to broadcast live from charity and community events, thereby attracting the crowds by publicising the event on air, before and during activities as diverse as local fundraisers and high profile exhibitions.
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. They earn their living by entertaining around the area, since most of the presenters are talented singers and DJs in their own right. They’re all approachable and friendly – there’s no room for divas at Big Radio Spain!
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, and its team of 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!
He tries 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 Radio Spain, 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 vehicle 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 has heard the story since.
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 their respective shows in a mankini to keep cool. Singer and presenter Nick Gold turned up to do his afternoon show, and just as Zac was in full flow, Nick 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 the station!
The broadcast system at Big FM is designed with the presenters in mind. Richie does his best not to interfere with how the DJs want to run their shows, although he’s always on hand with help, advice and endless cups of tea. That said, he’s no nursemaid. Once the Big Radio Spain volunteers have shown they have an aptitude for broadcasting, they’re in at the deep end.
Zac had never worked on a radio show 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 on air live, without a safety net. There’s a good 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 this 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 the station’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.
The station introduced live, on air chats and interviews with the presenters, and they were working on the system when I was there gathering material for this article. Richie is always prepared for all eventualities, and even has back up systems for his back up systems. However, he’s also notoriously impatient to get things done. He did try to 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 while I was chatting to the presenters in the studio. 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 Radio Spain 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 Richie and the team can help with your business or community project? Or just listen in, the old-fashioned way or live on the website, and bring a smile to your day or sparkling company to your evening. You can also chat to your favourite presenter, or enter one of the many competitions.
There are two stations to choose from. Big Radio One has all the latest ‘choons’ – Dean Alexanda’s unique term for modern music. Big Radio Two is where you’ll find the golden oldies. That’s the music, not the presenters!
That said, Big Radio 2 regulars Lee Howard and Rai Woods have a few years on the clock between them. Lee played in his own band and as a session musician way back in the 1960s, while Rai spent the Swinging Sixties working in film and television, on projects such as The Avengers TV series and the film Far From the Madding Crowd, with Julie Christie and Terence Stamp.
Get to know Big Radio Spain soon, and let the station family boost your hiliday experience, or bring more entertainment into your life on the Costa Blanca. As I said at the start, stations come and go, but Big Radio Spain just keeps on getting bigger and better.