Afternoon Delight

Every weekday from 3 to 7 p.m., KLAT's Carlos Martinez loves to talk about sex. Many in his Spanish-speaking audience adore him. But not everyone's happy with what he has to say.

Clearly, Martinez's showmanship is part of the reason for his program's success. Without his marketing instincts, in fact, it wouldn't exist at all. Cooking it up, Martinez says, was the result of a careful look at Houston and at his own talents.

After he arrived in Houston in the green Dodge, Martinez recalls, he embarked on his first and last stint of manual labor. It was a murderous job, hammering out rolls of metal mesh into stiff hurricane fences. From there, Martinez quickly graduated to jobs more to his taste: emceeing at the Latin World ballroom, observing human frailty firsthand as a room-service waiter and finally hosting a three-hour Spanish-language music show at what was then KWBA in Baytown. Liking the radio work, Martinez then moved to KLBL for five months, where he worked as both a DJ and program director. Then it was on to KEYH, where, until 1985, he was an announcer. Along the way, he got married to a woman he met dancing at the Latin Ballroom and fathered two daughters, now in their early teens.

By 1985, though, Martinez's life had started falling apart. His marriage collapsed; KEYH changed its format from international Latin music to pure ranchera, a genre Martinez loathed, and laid him off.

It was during his three years outside of radio, says Martinez, that he began plotting how to make himself indispensable if he returned. While supporting himself with a southwest Houston nightclub and two herbal-remedy shops, Martinez spent his spare time analyzing mainstream radio. He found himself entranced by Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who dispensed clinical advice but never intimidated her listeners. Howard Stern, on the other hand, both intrigued and repelled him. Martinez loved Stern's charisma but hated his verbal abusiveness. Both radio personalities, Martinez realized, had no parallel in Hispanic radio. But if sex-talk radio were available in Spanish, he decided, audiences would love it.

So in 1988, Martinez approached KXYZ with a plan for a sexual advice show. With some nervousness, the station accepted. Almost immediately, Intimidades was a hit.

True, during those first years, when Martinez was more a jokester than a counselor, great clumps of the Spanish radio audience were shocked. In 1988, Martinez claims, the Catholic Church, in the form of the Houston-Galveston Archdiocese, even tried to file a lawsuit to get him off the air, citing him for blasphemy, vulgarity and improper medical practice. (The Archdiocese replies that if anyone ever considered a lawsuit, it's news to them. For that matter, the Archdiocese says Martinez is news to them; a spokesman was unfamiliar with his name. And court documents don't indicate any legal action of the sort Martinez remembers.) Still, KXYZ station manager Evarardo Morales does concur that there were numerous complaints and a few legal threats during Martinez's first year as a sex guru.

They were never enough to threaten Martinez's stardom, however. Eventually, Martinez says, he left the station on his own, saying it wasn't quick enough to expand his show into other markets. In 1994, he and Intimidades moved to KLAT. At his current station, he says, his salesman's instincts are much more respected.

It would be wrong, though, to attribute Intimidades' popularity simply to marketing. Martinez sells something besides basic sexology and a way with a double-entendre. To Houston's Latino immigrants, Martinez also explores their culture, their sexual mores and their drives -- the same drives that defined his own life when he first came here. And if the circumstances of Martinez's past are more dramatic than others', they seem only to have heightened his empathy for his audience. Inveighing against the machismo and chauvinism he knew firsthand while growing up, Martinez still leaves no doubt about his Mexican pride. And if he's seductive with the women who call him, it's because he knows the remote manners of Mexican and U.S. physicians can make them feel afraid or demeaned. As an immigrant from poverty, Martinez knows what it's like to be illegal and undereducated, and he often uses that insight in advising his callers.

Yet the more you listen in, and the more Martinez reveals about his current life, the clearer it becomes that he also is relating to his audience on a more subtle level. Watching him perched on his chair, dispensing advice into thin air, one is struck by how intense he looks, even though no one can see him. The typical woman who calls Martinez does so from some kind of solitude. Somehow, it's a condition that the gregarious Martinez knows a lot about.

It was there in his childhood, of course. He says solitude was also there in his marriage, which he claims ended when his wife refused to outgrow her role as a subservient housewife. Not that Martinez has any lack of female company now, mind you. To hear him on the phone making a date with one of his "women friends," as he coyly terms them, is to hear a bilingual Casanova at the top of his form. At the same time, Martinez says, in the years since his divorce, he hasn't found a new mate, and he doesn't expect to. "I had a vasectomy. That makes it hard to find a woman to settle down with," he says. "Among Latinas, everyone thinks they're born to reproduce." Martinez also has no close male friends, he says. Never has. "All the men I've been friends with have hurt me," he says.

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