It's a trivial world
LU contest prepares to move into the great unknown

By Steven Hyden
Post-Crescent staff writer

The Great Midwest Trivia Contest has been a fixture at Lawrence University since the Johnson Administration. But for long-time players like Jim Froeming, the 41st year feels like the first.

Up until this year, Lawrence's 50-hour marathon of minutia was broadcast on the university radio station, WLFM-FM 91.1. Now players will have to log in to WLFM's Web site when the contest begins at exactly 10:00:37 p.m. Friday to wade in the murky depths of obscure knowledge.

In September, WLFM went off the air and converted to an Internet-only Webcasting format. While the station is normally licensed for only 120 online listeners at one time, 60 each for on-campus and off-campus, contest organizers say extra bandwidth will be added to handle next weekend's expected traffic spike. Last year nearly 80 teams participated in the contest.

Despite assurances from Lawrence's trivia gurus that the contest will come off as it has 40 times before, "I'm still a little bit concerned if the contest can be pulled off 100 percent. The Webcast is still shaky," said Froeming, a 46-year-old Appleton native who started playing Lawrence trivia in 1978.

"This is going to be a 'see how it goes' year," he said.

Trivia grandmaster Reid Stratton, better known among non-trivia hounds as the guy who oversees the whole thing, has received many e-mails from contest veterans curious about how the technology will work. This isn't the first time the contest has been Webcast, but the number of online listeners will be much greater than in past years.

When it comes to bandwidth, "I've been told we'll have as much as we need," Stratton said. Still, this year's contest will have to double as a dress rehearsal for the Webcast-only format. "I don't think anyone can test having 200 people connected at one time," he said.

Stratton, an LU senior from Portland, Ore., has played or worked the contest for four years. He hopes cyberspace doesn't change it too much.

"A lot of people love the contest and don't want anything to happen to it," he said. "It's tough at this point. If everything goes well, it's a great thing because we'll have a wider audience. If it means the contest is slower and there's going to be problems, it's obviously not such a good thing."

This isn't the first time the Web has imposed change on Lawrence's trivia tradition. The wealth of information now available with a simple keystroke has made coming up with stump-worthy trivia questions much tougher.

Now questions are frequently drawn from personal experiences and observances. LU senior James Hall, one of 12 trivia masters, has a word for it: "un-Googleable." For instance, Hall once wrote a question about a couple of peculiarities he noticed on a town hall clock in the Jewish quarter of Prague. Good luck finding that on a Web site.

"We have to keep a step ahead of the technology," Hall said.

The contest has come a long way since Froeming played on a two-man team 28 years ago. Back then all he had was a rotary phone, some Encyclopedia books, an Almanac and a few issues of The Post-Crescent. When asked about how the information age has affected the contest, Froeming just sighs.

"I have really mixed feelings about that," he said. "In a way, I feel the Internet is a great equalizer. It makes everyone have access to the same answers. The ones that go above and beyond should be the ones that shine.

"Maybe I'm just upset I have 1,500 books I don't use anymore."

Froeming's team has about a dozen core members and a dozen more casual players who drift in and out. Some players will chime in from as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia. The Webcast makes long-distance playing possible, though the Philly teammate once followed along thanks to his mother putting the phone up to the radio for two days.

"It's the only time of the year that we see each other," said John Foote, 48, of Little Suamico, who will be on board for his 31st Lawrence trivia contest. "It's kind of a reunion."

The friendships are what keep the trivia contest going.

"I don't think any other trivia contest is like this one," LU junior and first-time trivia master Corin Howland, 24, said. "It's a big silly weekend and it's just a lot of fun."