Radio Days — On the Air for Trivia Weekend

This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.

In my experience, working in a broadcast studio is usually an act of relative isolation. Although there might be a vast number of people on the other end of the radio waves, they don’t feel particularly present, even when they’re telephoning with requests or in the hopes of winning on-air giveaways. More so than television, radio is a passive broadcast medium, and I have long been aware that most who are tuned in are engaging with the programming only casually, as they are driving, doing chores, or otherwise going about their days. Mild mispronunciations or other verbal stumbles are likely not noticed, no matter how much they might irk me when I am the tongue-tangled perpetrator. At WWSP-FM, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point student-run radio station where I happily spent my undergraduate years, there was — and still is — a yearly exception to the rule of listener indifference, a swath of programming when DJs were certain that those dialed into the station were hanging on practically every word. That time is called Trivia.

When I arrived at the station, in the fall of 1988, the annual fundraising event had already grown to the size that earned in the only mildly suspect honorific The World’s Largest Trivia Contest. The first year I was involved, there were more than eight thousand players on around three hundred forty teams, far outpacing similar weekend-long contests run by other college radio stations in the Upper Midwest, such as KVSC-FM at St. Cloud State University and WLFM at Lawrence University. Trivia wasn’t simply the station’s yearly highlight; it was arguably one of two or three biggest events of the year in the whole city. I remember walking through the usually bustling downtown on the Friday night of the contest to find streets and stores as abandoned as a ghost town, and every empty business I entered was playing the station’s broadcast loudly, hardly a common occurrence the other fifty-one weeks of the year. For those three strange days, WWSP was the dominant presence in the community.

A significant amount of the Trivia players didn’t see this as a lark or casual diversion either. Every question mattered, so every reading of the question mattered. With a few exceptions during the weekend, questions run for the length of two songs, neither of which exceeds four minutes in length, and DJs mindful of fitting eight questions (along with sponsor announcement, a newscast, a prerecorded team profile, other bits of business) into every broadcast hour are likely to opt for shorter cuts more often than not. Especially because the questions typically require research to answer and the phone lines used to call in a response are often busy enough to necessitate multiple redials to break through, seconds are precious. Players are sent into furies when they sent down fruitless paths because the on-air announcer couldn’t quite master a complicated name or title embedded in a question.

All those stakes weighed on me whenever I took my turn in the air chair during Trivia. By the time of my inaugural run presiding over the contest’s broadcast, I felt more comfortable in that radio booth than just about anywhere else in the world. That ease evaporated during Trivia as I could feel the scrutiny on every utterance. It didn’t help, by the way, that the contest’s main writer devilishly enjoyed saddling me questions such as “What is the name of the classic album that includes the song ‘Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic’?” I had cause to feel some stress.

Luckily, the shift away from studio solitude also occurred apart from the intense connection to the listeners that weekend. Running the contest is an enormous endeavor. It’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck moment for the student executive staff running the station, and it further demands the gracious contributions of dozens upon dozens of volunteers answering phones, entering answers into a database, and generally keeping all the metaphorical plates spinning atop their shaky spindles. The experience of being on the air during Trivia was one of community, knowing that I was one member in a collective effort to give the eager disciples of our marathon of minutiae a grandly enjoyable fifty-four hours. We were in it together, and that was a tremendous feeling to have.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Radio Days” tag.

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