A real sports animal

Photo: Mark Hancock

• he’s thin-skinned;
• 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

Now 50, Traber grew up in Maryland, played football and baseball at Oklahoma State University and then baseball in the Major Leagues — all of which he routinely reminds listeners. When he played for the Baltimore Orioles, he said local sports media often approached him because he was known for being a good interview.

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.”

Temper, temper 

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.”

Andrew Gilman

This material falls under the archives category because it was imported from our previous website. It will eventually be filtered into the proper category as time allows.

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