Remembering a lost voice of classic Southern California radio

Benny Martinez passed away on January 3rd from complications related to diabetes. He was 66.

In 1981, Martinez was a young kid and relative newcomer to Los Angeles who was picked for the early evening shift on program director Chuck Martin’s top-40 K-WEST 106 (now KPWR, 105.9 FM).

I remember listening to Martinez on K-WEST, the little station that should have dominated radio in Los Angeles, a true version of KHJ (930 AM) on FM, launched about six months after KHJ went country. Unfortunately, upper management didn’t give it enough time and dropped the format just as KIIS-FM was moving in; KIIS would eventually become the top-rated station in America due in part to K-WEST leaving the format to them.

I asked Martin to talk about Martinez. “I first heard of Benny while I was programming KHJ. We would receive a lot of air checks from DJs around the country … so many people wanted to work at KHJ. One day my assistant, “Hurricane” Heron, came to me and said ‘you want to listen to this one.’ It was Benny Martinez, which was working at a little station in El Centro called KXO.”

“Benny had a decent voice, but there was something more to it. He had a vibe, something in his attitude, that stuck out. He had excellent delivery, with a great pace and momentum. He was not ready for KHJ yet, but he was close to the type of personality I wanted for the station.

“One day, he showed up in my office. My secretary said he was in the lobby, had sent me a tape and was hoping we could go over it together. So I brought him to my office, we sat down and listened; I gave him suggestions, such as to start speaking both Spanish and English on the air, moving between the two as effortlessly as he could. He was quite talented in this. After the meeting, we agreed to stay in touch while I continued to offer suggestions… which we did for many months”

It was the Spanish-English announcing that made Martinez fun to listen to for me, even though I am still most definitely not a Spanish speaker.

Long before it was trendy at some stations, Martinez would through in a few Spanish words as he spoke, often culminating with “on K-WEST, uno cero seis.” But I am getting ahead of the story.

Fast forward a bit … KHJ has gone country, Martin is up in San Francisco consulting with KHJ sister station KFRC, when he gets the opportunity to program K-WEST. “We had most of the staff set … Bobby Ocean, Pat Garrett, London and Engelman, and the one holdover from the old format, China Smith. But I still needed an evening jock. Hurricane brought up Benny.”

After thinking about it for a while, “he was at the top of my list” for potential candidates, he explained. But Martin had lost track of Martinez when the young DJ left KXO. “I had no clue where he was,” said Martin. “I finally found him … working at a bank! He had given up radio because he needed a more stable job as he started a family.”

Would he be interested in working the evening shift on K-WEST? “Yes,” came the immediate reply from Martinez. And he didn’t let Martinez down. “He was exactly what I wanted for the format, for that time slot especially. He did really well for me,” he said.

Unfortunately, as I said, it didn’t last. Just as the format was building momentum, and immediately prior to KIIS-FM starting its ascension, Martin realized the station was not being supported correctly, and promises were being broken. So he reluctantly left the station, the last station he ever programmed. Martinez went on to work at other stations in town, including the KIIS-AM (now KEIB, 1150 AM) “shadow cast” of KIIS-FM, B-100 (KIBB, now KKLQ, 100.3 FM), and KRTH (101.1 FM).

Martinez also worked on Westwood One’s syndicated 70s format but ultimately realized what he already knew: radio is not the most stable of industries. So he left and sold cars at Ed Butts Ford in La Puente.

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I realize this is a long tribute for Martinez, who certainly would not be considered a “legend” in the vein of Charlie Tuna, Robert W. Morgan, or “the Real” Don Steele. But he represents the last gasps of personality-oriented top-40 radio, and for that matter made his mark in an increasingly tough industry.

I remember him so well because my radio was glued to K-WEST in that era, whether I was driving to Long Beach State or working at the Sears Surplus Store warehouse. It was fun; Martinez will be missed.

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