• he’s a big tipper;
• he’s hard to work with;
• he’s morally sound;
• he’s loyal;
• he is not a misogynist (“just ridiculous,” he said of that accusation);
• he doesn’t care if people like him, only if he’s doing a good job;
• he’s emotional and passionate; and
• he has a short fuse for people who say dumb things.
This is Jim Traber, afternoon drive-time host on WWLS The Sports Animal 98.1 FM, where he lords over the airways with an authority unequaled in local radio. Traber doesn’t just hold grudges; he chokes them into submission.
Seemingly fueled by slights (real or imagined), he challenges listeners to fights, spits venom on everything from The Oklahoman sports columnist Jenni Carlson to Tiger Woods, and instructs listeners on topics that range from breaking in a new ball glove to preparing a cheesecloth at Thanksgiving. And this is also Jim Traber: a guy who swears he’s not the same on the radio as he is off it. He talks about football with the same passion as he talks about his family.
Like him or hate him, people listen — more than 76,400 each week.
“I’m not going to change,” he said. “This is what I am.”
Liked and loathed
Somewhere along the way, someone told Traber he should give sports radio a try. When his playing career ended, he drove to Norman for a job interview.
He was on the air an hour later. “There’s a certain rawness to Jim and that’s the best thing about him,” said Doug Gottlieb, who went from playing basketball at OSU to becoming a national radio host at ESPN. “Jim is very emotional and opinionated. That’s part of the beauty to him. When he’s angry, he’s really angry. When he’s down, he’s really down. When he’s defensive, he’s really defensive.”
It’s been like that since Traber started doing radio in Oklahoma nearly 20 years ago: Tune in for the talk, stay for the circus. He is more personality than radio host. The show is one part topical sports discussion and three parts Traber.
“He’s fantastic for radio in Oklahoma City,” said Oklahoman sports columnist and airwaves colleague Berry Tramel. “People listen because he’s great on the radio, whether he’s talking sports or nonsense about politics or something else he doesn’t know anything about. A forceful personality.”
That personality, self-described as “The Ultimate” on the air, is what drives listeners to WWLS — and drives them away. But maybe Traber’s greatest asset is he’s unlike most of his peers in Oklahoma radio and TV. He goes out of his way to make sure he’s not considered an OSU “yes man” or a University of Oklahoma apologist.
Combine that with his not-from-here personality, and it plays well.
“The OU people don’t like me and the OSU people don’t like me, and I think that’s perfect,” he said. “I don’t want my show to turn into, ‘Oh, Jim, we love your show.’ I want people to say, ‘Jim, you’re an idiot’ and I want others who say, ‘Don’t listen to him — you’re really good.’ I want both. That means I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.
“I will say things other people don’t want to say. You put a truth serum in every other host working here at the station and they think the same things I do. They just don’t want to say it.”
Don’t like him? In Traber-speak, you’re just a “yardbird.” Wanna ridicule his professional career? There’s some ammo there: Traber played parts of four seasons in the American League, hit just .227 for his career and had a total of 27 homers.
And he will tell you to come on down and say it to his face, big boy. He’s waiting, usually lugging in a knuckle-dragging machismo attitude, uninterested in outsmarting the detractors who call into the show.
But that’s Traber, and that also has its place in the Oklahoma sports world, where reasonable might be found on a different spot on the dial.
“If people are going to take the time to call me and call into my job and sit on hold for 20 minutes to call me names, then I’m going to embarrass you,” Traber said. “If you have some guts, come say it to me. But they never do. If I was that guy’s wife, I would think, ‘What is wrong with you? You’re like a little child.’” Dispensing opinions isn’t easy. Not when it’s done during drive time on the metro’s most popular sports talk show. People are going to get mad. Oftentimes, however, the host is the angry one.
Traber doesn’t take criticism particularly well. Catch him on a bad day, it’s worse. He’s had on-air feuds with every one from the Thunder’s Nick Collison (who had the nerve to tweet about how he liked the Seattle weather) to Gottlieb, to scores of callers and even co-hosts Tramel and Mark Rodgers.
Those feuds don’t feel like the made-for-radio kind. They seem raw and authentic, giving a glimpse of the kind of person Traber is.
“Let’s be honest: He’s arrogant, a blowhard,” said Patrick Riley, who operates The Lost Ogle, a blog devoted to OKC pop culture. “He’s loud and gets riled up. He lets little things irritate him.”
Such traits are part of the reason Riley has made teasing Traber a sort-of mission, even creating a life-sized, cardboard cutout standee of Traber for occasional appearances around town.
“But he’s good at his job and good at what he does,” Riley said. “Does that open him up for scrutiny? Of course it does. He puts himself out there and it’s easy to make fun of and laugh at him.”
‘What you hear is what you get’
Traber seems to invite angry callers, but he’s surprised when they get upset with him. The result? Sometimes a shouting match, often with name calling or the issuance of a physical challenge.
“He’s not misunderstood,” said Tramel. “It’s not the least bit put on. Jim on the radio is exactly how he is in real life.”
Traber disagrees. He’ll yell and snort and belittle between commercial breaks, but he considers his personal life a separate realm. He speaks affectionately of his home life with three adopted daughters and his wife of 17 years, Julie.
“The radio is not real life,” he said. “I’m doing a job. On the radio, I want to be right. At home, I’m wrong a lot.”
Traber almost died in 2008 when his colon exploded. He had stents placed in his arteries last December. He doesn’t talk to his two sons, one of whom played football at Norman North and now plays at Bucknell University.
“I’m very proud of him,” Traber said. “But it’s a bad situation. I don’t talk to them.”
Strangers, however, often have no reluctance talking to him.
“When anyone recognizes who he is, I tense up, because there’s no middle ground,” Julie Traber said. “People love him or hate him. He’s not perfect and he doesn’t think he is, but he gets up every day trying to be the best father, husband and Christian he can be. He does the same thing with his show.”
Gottlieb said he owes Traber for giving him his start on the radio. Calls him gracious, supportive, a great friend. He also said Traber’s anger is real.
“He has a tough time turning it off,” Gottlieb said.
But Traber insists he’s not angry — even if it sounds that way from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays, where one need not even to turn up the volume.
Traber will shout loud enough for you to hear.
“I’m probably pretty thin-skinned,” he said. “Things bother me. I’m emotional and passionate about everything. But when 6 rolls around, I’m done with it. I don’t take it home with me.”