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Cherry on top

A voice once heard around Ashmont Hill is heating up NY radio

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Vanessa E. Jones
Globe Staff / May 2, 2006

NEW YORK—Cherry Martinez is a bit distressed. Since the DJ at the hip-hop and R&B station Power 105.1 went on the air at 6 p.m., the fans calling in have been lacking in energy. She expects to wring some excitement out of this caller, who will win free tickets to see high school basketball stars in the Jordan All-American Classic if he or she can name the five songs being played on the station's countdown show.

She answers and disconnects caller No. 103, caller No. 104, and then -- ''Power," says Martinez, answering the phone in her distinctively raspy voice.

''Hello," says Andrea of Brooklyn. ''Um, I know all the five songs."

''Guess what?" Martinez says.

No response, except for heavy breathing.

''Hello?" says Martinez. ''You're caller 105," she continues as a high-pitched ''Yes," squeaks out of Andrea's mouth.

''I was waiting," says Martinez, her voice rising as she playfully scolds Andrea. ''I don't know what happened. Like, all day long everybody's giving me no emotion."

After Andrea reels off the list of songs by Busta Rhymes and Trey Songz, Martinez quickly edits the recorded playback of their conversation, tightening the clip that will air once Mary J. Blige's ''Be Without You," the No. 1 song on the countdown, finishes.

This would be one of the last times Martinez hosts the 6-to-10 p.m. Power 105.1 (WWPR-FM) show, the No. 1 evening program in New York among listeners 12 and older. Days later came the announcement that DJ Clue -- a respected mixtape artist who hosts MTV's hip-hop countdown show, ''Direct Effect" -- would take over the slot.

On April 24, after more than two years in the previous gig, Martinez began hosting ''Power After Hours," a program airing weekdays from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. that showcases mellow, sexy music along the lines of Ne-Yo's ''So Sick" and LL Cool J's ''I Need Love." The highest-rated show on the station, ''Power After Hours" hasn't had a live host in about four years, says Nate Bell, Power 105.1's program director.

The announcement came just as Martinez was beginning to generate ink for a rivalry between herself and Funkmaster Flex, a high-profile DJ who hosts a similar hip-hop show on Hot 97 (WQHT-FM) during the same evening hours. Martinez created two ''diss tracks" that she played as intros to her show to blast Flex for trash-talking her on air. As news of the Power 105.1 changes became known, Flex joked on-air about it by playfully offering Martinez a cleaning job and sent her an e-mail asking her, ''How does it feel?"

For her part, Martinez, who has worked at stations in Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago in her nine years as an on-air personality in commercial radio, thinks it feels pretty good. ''That's a great move," she says.

Not surprising, her rival, Flex, sees the change as a defeat.

''It's a step down," says Flex. ''I was teasing her about it because it's what radio is built on. You're in a war; it's about building your name and staying on top."

Dreaming of music
Martinez began building her name in 1992, when she got her first job in radio as an intern at Boston's WILD-AM (1090). She persuaded the program director, Stephen Hill, now vice president of music programming and talent at BET, to give her a shot doing entertainment news segments on Fridays. Soon she was doing the segments on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

''She had this great smoky quality to her voice," says Hill. ''She sounded like she was from Boston, so we knew she'd relate to the audience. She sounded like she smiled when she spoke. That's just a great quality to find in someone."

Radio wasn't Martinez's first love. She spent her younger years in Boston singing, dancing, and ultimately rapping.

''She always wanted to be in the spotlight," says her mother, Gladys Tennyson-Brown, 59, a native of Honduras who since 1981 has worked for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.

Even now, Martinez sees fame as her destiny.

''As far back as I remember, something told me I was chosen for that," she says an hour before she goes on air.

In between classes at the Needham public schools and later, Cardinal Cushing High School in South Boston, Martinez worked hard to find that success. She was a member of the music groups Golden Girls, Sylicious, and Novelty (which included Marie ''Free" Wright, the former host of BET's popular video countdown show ''106 & Park"). At one point, Martinez took about $15,000 she had been saving to buy a BMW convertible and went to Atlanta to work with a member of singer Bobby Brown's entourage.

''I wasn't with him," says Martinez, referring to Brown, ''but I was with his man's friend's friend. And that didn't work out. . . . In the ATL, it was fun, though. It was an experience."

But by 1988, Martinez knew it was time to relinquish that dream. She tried beauty school, then took a chance on radio, she says, because ''I could still be close to music. . . . You never know, you may meet somebody, get in, and make connections."

In 1993, after giving birth to her son, D'Anthony, who is now 13, she enrolled at Emerson College. While still doing entertainment segments on WILD, she started on-air work at Emerson's WERS-FM (88.9). That's when Cherry Martinez was born. WILD's program director wouldn't let her use ''Debbie Phoenix," her handle at WILD, on WERS. Martinez loved Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream and the character Cherry Valance from the novel ''The Outsiders." She chose ''Martinez," she says, because, ''my mother and my father, they're both from Honduras . . . but I always got this: Are you Spanish? How is Tennyson Spanish? So this is a fantasy of mine always to have a Spanish last name because I'm Spanish."

Coping with tragedy
The tapes that Martinez sent to radio stations nationally of her work on WERS were good enough to immediately get her a job on commercial radio after she graduated from Emerson in 1997. She worked at WGCI-FM in Chicago and then WJLB-FM in Detroit.

''She was someone who was up and coming," says Michael Saunders, the former program director at WJLB who ultimately brought her to Power 105.1 in 2003 while he was the program director there. ''I could see her skills."

After stints at radio stations in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, Martinez returned in 2000 to WILD, where she hosted the midday show and worked as an assistant program director and music director. In August of that year, her older sister Yariela (known as ''Judith") was strangled by her husband, Christopher J. DeMarco, a National Guard sergeant, at the National Guard Armory in Stoughton, where he worked.

Martinez says she never had a chance to mourn. After taking a week off, she was back on the air, giving away free UniverSoul Circus tickets and other items to the listeners. She became depressed, she says, and obsessed with her sister's case, calling the DA in the middle of the night with ideas on how to convict DeMarco. DeMarco ultimately received a life sentence.

''Justice is sought," says Martinez, ''and you move on. From there something good comes out: You're stronger, you're better."

By the time of DeMarco's sentencing, Martinez had already left town for another job in Philadelphia. She was at Sirius Satellite Radio when she bumped into Saunders at a party. In June 2003, he hired her at Power 105.1 as a weekend DJ, and three months later, Martinez began hosting the 6 p.m. show.

She quickly became a hit.

''Cherry is very familiar," says Carl Chery, senior staff writer at SOHH.com, a website dedicated to hip-hop news that has covered the Martinez/Flex battle. ''When you speak to her, you feel like you're speaking to someone you know. She's very conversational when [she's] on the radio. . . . People are drawn to that."

From the beginning, Flex would pick at her. She has the same surname as Angie Martinez, another DJ on Hot 97. ''We say, 'Angie is the only Martinez that matters,' " says Flex.

A few months ago, Cherry Martinez was called the B-word on Flex's Hot 97's show. ''This is what he does when he can't get his way," says Martinez, ''or when things aren't according to plan. He says, 'Hey, I'll just take her out.' "

For his part, Flex says of the name calling, ''I didn't say it; somebody said it while I was on the air. I made sure that they never said it again."

Martinez's response was to create the track ''I Run New York," which first aired near the end of February. On it, she boasts over a hip-hop groove, ''The walls have ears, homey / I hear you talk / Yeah I'm from Boston, homey/But I run New York."

As rivalries go, this one didn't heat up too much, says Chery. Bell, who came on as program director at Power 105.1 in January, doesn't seem interested.

''Our focus is on our listeners and serving their needs," says Bell, noting that Flex was only about a point ahead in the 18-to-34 demographic when the March Arbitron ratings were released. ''We don't care about Flex and what he did and what he said."

Meanwhile, Martinez works on finding the fame she dreamed of in her youth. She's got a manager who's trying to line up endorsement deals. She hopes her diss records will help her rapping career take off.

''It's all about timing," says Martinez, ''You know how this business is. You can't go against the grain or against the current. It happens when it's supposed to happen."

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