Contesting Trivia

by Nolan Zavoral
Playboy magazine, August, 1978.

If you are a devoted trivia lover, you may know what nonnatural catastrophe annually knocks hundreds of phones out of service in Appleton, Wisconsin. You don’t? Why, it’s the Annual Midwest Trivia Contest. For an eyewitness report, we switch you now to our correspondent, Nolan Zavoral.

All is chaos, in the brightly lit studios of WLFM, the 10,500-watt radio station of Lawrence University in Appleton: phones ringing, people running, records playing. WLFM’s 13th Annual Midwest Trivia Contest is about to begin. For the next 50 hours, the station will test the recall and resourcefulness of northern Wisconsin listeners, endeavoring to find out who knows the most about the least.

WLFM’s is reputedly the country’s oldest living trivia contest and it works this way: A question worth between five and 100 points is asked on the air; while a record is played, competing listener teams call the station with their answers - or guesses(two per call); when the deejay sounds a tone, time is up; a list of the teams who gave the correct answers is read; then on to the next question.

"What did the Cowardly Lion say after receiving his medals of courage from the Wizard of Oz?”"
“"Whom did Morely Safer replace on 60 Minutes?”"
“"What town marks the site that the U.S. Geological Survey indicated as the geographical center of North America? And how far is it from there to the Gulf of Mexico, the arctic archipelago and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans?”"
Not to mention:
“"What is the address of Sherlock Holmes’' apartment?”"

During the first two hours of the contest, the deejay is Lawrence student Bob Brightman. He sits before the control board, swing microphone close to his lips, while ten feet behind him, volunteers feed team scores into a computer and, ahead of him other volunteers sit at a table taking calls over nine newly installed phones.

Ok, listen up now, because Bob has a question worth five big trivia points. It will be asked, via the wonders of cassette tape, by renowned commentator Paul Harvey who was recently promoting his new book in Appleton and was shanghaied by WLFM for the express purpose of taping question 15: "“Hello, Americans! I’m Paul Harvey. Now, for five trivia points where is the International Armadillo Confab and Exposition held? Gooooood Day!”"

One can almost feel the panic out there in listenerland, as teams with names like Teenage Lust and Slime Creature paw through reference books on tables and floors for the answer. The phones begin ringing madly.

“"Is it held in Texas, in Amarillo?”" a caller asks.
“"Does the town begin with a T?”"
“"No. That’s two guesses.”"
“"A U? A B? A Z?”"
“"Call back.”"
“"Hey, don’'t------"”

The tone sounds. No more calls taken for that question.

An estimated 40,000 calls are received during the 398-question contest and it is not uncommon for the station to suspend the contest for a few minutes so the phone lines can cool. (So heavy is the barrage that 1000 phones have been reported knocked out of service in Appleton.) Two hundred and seven teams competed in the 1978 contest-- 44 on campus, 163 off. Teams range from one person to dorm squads of 50 or more-- figure around 2000 trivia players, total, many of whom stayed up the entire 50 hours.

And for what? Why, for the thrill of winning one of the unique prizes awarded by WLFM’s director of broadcasting, Larry Page. In 1978, those treasures included 50-pound blocks of salt and the tackiest plastic plants imaginable.

“"I wanted to get the crummier things," Page laments, "“but that was all I could come up with at the last minute.”"

(Answers: "“Aw, shucks, folks, I’'m speechless"”; Harry Reasoner; Rugby, North Dakota, and 1500 miles; 221-B Baker Street; Victoria Texas.)