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Secret Stuff: Trivia on Trivia

Little Stevens Point hosts the world's largest trivia contest

The biggest trivia contest in the world is not in Los Angeles, or New York, or London. It's in tiny Stevens Point, Wisconsin.

Every year since 1969, the university radio station at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, has run an on-air trivia contest. Over time, it has expanded from 8 hours to 54, running for three solid days in April.

Eight questions are asked over the 90FM airwaves each hour. Team contestants are given the length of time it takes two songs to play in which to come up with an answer. All teams that get it right get an equal share of the 2000 points that a question is worth. "The contest counts all the teams that get a question right, adds three, then divides that number by 2000 and rounds the result up to the nearest multiple of 5;  this is the value of a question" says Jim Oliva, who's been writing the questions since 1979.

"The number of teams playing has recently stayed constant," says Oliva. "But the number of serious teams, the number playing 24 hours a day, is growing." In fact, one team has recruited some Australians to listen to the questions as they are webcast, so that while the Americans sleep, the Australians play, and vice versa."

A whole town goes trivial

That the webcast can be heard around the world is quite the change from 1969, when WWSP had a 10-watt range that barely reached the ends of the campus. Even so, "the magic is in being here," says Oliva.

With 11,500 players on 450 teams, the trivia contest is by far the biggest thing that happens in Stevens Point in any given year. The festivities begin with a parade, and not only does the whole town seem to play, but former residents fly home to reunite with their old teams. Some teams have been playing, literally, for decades, and reunite just once a year.

For that weekend in April, motels are booked full, the Dominos never closes and Frito Lay hires somebody to spend the whole weekend desperately trying to keep store shelves stocked with potato chips. The contest needs 18 phone operators at all times, even in the dead of night, and local corporate support is so strong that Oliva has no problem finding red-eye volunteers.

Oliva is known locally as the Oz for his role in writing the questions and generally running the contest, alongside Jim Eckendorf. But he is not the first Oz: there have been as many as half a dozen. When Oliva first wrote the contest in 1979, he also began a run that made him the Oz of all Ozzes. Most importantly, the Oliva Era was marked by increased professionalism. All questions were researched and written, not spontaneously on the night of the contest, but far in advance.

"Before I started, the first thing that the person running it would say was, 'I'll show them,'" says Oliva. "But I think the first thing to say should have been, 'Let's have some fun!' Because it's a game. It should be fun!"

Robert Redford: WWSP mascot and official first answer

That sense of fun also extends to poking fun at himself. The first answer every year is always either "Robert Redford" or, "Bob." The first year Oliva wrote the questions, he saw a magazine article that said that Robert Redford had been appointed sewer commissioner of Provo, Utah, in 1976.

"I was prouder than snot," says Oliva, who remembers popping that factoid into a question. But when it was asked, the complaint line at the station was flooded with objections. "We had people who had actually called the sewer commission in Provo and talked to the commissioner, who told them that he'd been elected in 1974 and was still on the job."

Convinced he was right, Oliva managed to track down Redford's personal assistant, who had offered Oliva Redford's home phone number. "But he was in New York filming Ordinary People, so the assistant thought about it a minute and remembered that Robert Redford was appointed in Provo Canyon, not Provo."

So, Oliva pulled out the question and admitted his mistake. The next year, though, the very first question was, "In 1976, who was appointed sewer commissioner of Provo Canyon, Utah?" As Oliva explains, "This way, every year I begin the contest by humbling myself right off the bat."

(Players at World Trivia Night will recognize this. The first answer every year in that event is "Pierre Trudeau," as a tip of the hat to Oliva and as a very deep inside joke.)

Oliva is also famous for running in-jokes that thread through the questions, which are often evident only to people who play the whole contest. One year, "Elvis Presley" was the answer to a disproportionate number of questions. "One of the questions was, 'Who ran as an independent mayoral candidate in Phillips, Wisconsin?' A lot of teams said, 'I have no idea, so let's guess that it's Elvis.' And they were right!"

Dealing with Google

One major change from 1969 is the growth of the Internet. As a show broadcast over the airwaves, there is no way to keep people from using reference works or Google. To keep the game challenging, the questions have become much harder. What would once be a 250-point question 15 years ago would not be worth 10 points.

In the old days, for example, Oliva could this question: "Here's one for you medical students. Where would you be if you had a case of the Mercedes bends?" But, far from being a medical question, it's actually a reference to the lyrics from Hotel California by the Eagles. That's easy to find on the Internet, simply by searching "Mercedes bends."

"We don't ask a question now; we describe it." In other words, questions describe situations, which have no easily discernible key words. But even so, some players spend the year with notebooks, writing down anything question-worthy they encounter in movie theatres, in TV commercials, on the radio and so on.

But although many of the WWSP players are hard core, Oliva knows that many of the teams are playing just for the fun of being with family and friends. For them, Oliva throws in one or two questions every hour that most teams should get, even without a broadband Ethernet connection or a sagging shelf full of reference books.

That sense of fun is why the contest seems to be everywhere in Stevens Point on the weekend that it runs. "You go to somebody's house, they have it on. You go next door, they have it on, too. We take over!"

June 2004