Holy Webcast! Lawrence University’s 50-Hour Tribute to Trivia Goes All Digital

Like nearly all long-standing events, Lawrence University’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest — the nation’s longest-running salute to all things inconsequential — is steeped in tradition.

But when the 41st edition of the 50-hour marathon dedicated to mindless minutia kicks off on Friday, Jan. 27, one of its original elements will be missing. Instead of hitting the airwaves at its customary 10:00.37 p.m. start time, the contest ventures into uncharted waters with its first ever all-Internet broadcast (www.lawrence.edu/sorg/trivia).

And while this year’s contest questions will be delivered digitally, the 65 or so off-campus teams and 10 on-campus teams will still try to answer those questions in the time-honored tradition of phoning them in to one of the dozen telephone lines set up in the WLFM studios just for the contest.

“As much as possible, we’re hoping it (the switch from an FM signal to a Webcast) won’t affect the contest,” said senior Reid Stratton, who, as this year’s grand trivia master, will officially preside over the contest that runs until midnight Sunday (1/29). “We hope players will tune in on their computer rather than on their radio and things will be just as crazy as ever.”

The change was precipitated by the sale of WLFM’s broadcast license last year and a conversion to an all Web-based broadcast format for the station.

“This is going to be a little like entering the ‘Twilight Zone.’ In some ways we feel like we’re stepping back in time 26 years,” said Carole Leslie, 70, whose serves as house mother, cheerleader and avid participant for “Jabberwocky,” a team that has religiously played the trivia contest since 1980. “We’re feeling excited as well as a bit nervous. It’s a new horizon for the contest and should make for an interesting experience.

“I just hope we don’t wind up in 43rd place like we did the first year we played,” Leslie added with a laugh. Jabberwocky’s team of 10 core members, who play out of the basement of Leslie’s Greenville home, has consistently been a top 10 finisher among off-campus squads over the years.

While Stratton looks toward the weekend with fingers crossed that no technical “glitches” will derail the madness — Lawrence has made arrangements with outside sources to provide additional bandwidth for the weekend — the transition from an over-the-air broadcast to an Internet one opens up possibilities for trivia fans all over the country to participate in the contest without having to travel to Appleton, or at least to the limited signal area of the old WLFM.

Count Rich Bennett among those who are looking to joining the fun from afar. Bennett, 33, who works as a production manager for an advertising agency by day in Baltimore, Md., also organizes a weekly “pub quiz” at his favorite watering hole, Max’s Taphouse. He stumbled upon Lawrence’s Great Midwest Trivia Contest earlier this month on Wikipedia while researching questions for his own contest.

Intrigued by what he read about the contest, he and three buddies are set to take the Lawrence trivia plunge this weekend.

“I know we’ll be undermanned, but it’s certainly going to be interesting,” said Bennett, who will hunker down for the weekend at TBC Advertising, his company’s office, which will serve as his team headquarters. “It will be fun. We’ve got some powerful computers we can use, but I’m more worried about how we’ll get food here all weekend.

“We expect to lose, but lose gracefully,” Bennett added. “Hopefully the madness won’t set in until the very end. I know I’m going to sleep in late on Friday to help get me through the weekend.”

In some ways, the broadcast format switch is merely catching up to the sea change the contest’s “landscape” has undergone the past half dozen years or so. Gone are the days of closets stuffed with index cards, encyclopedias and ready-reference books on movies, music and television shows that got unpacked each January. Laptops with high-speed Internet connections have made books passe and become the weapon of choice for all teams serious about silliness. A search engine guru is now just as important as a good quarterback on a football team for this generation of triviaholics.

Thanks to Google, and others similar “tools,” the trivia masters who generate the contest’s 350 or so questions need to exercise all creative outlets when coming up with the mind stumpers.

“We definitely have to be more careful when we write questions,” says Stratton. “The trick is to come up with questions that are interesting but not completely ridiculous, something that provides a ‘hmmmm’ moment when people hear it.

“A good trivia question will either have a funny set-up or a funny answer,” Stratton added. “The set-up may seem pretty arcane, but then the answer will make you smile.”

Combine 50 hours of off-the-wall questions with wacky music, in-studio skits, highly-caffeinated, sleep-deprived men and women of all ages on clever, oft-times politically incorrect named teams with “prizes” ranging from bags of human hair to plastic pink flamingos and you have the recipe for a truly original weekend.

“The reason I love the trivia contest is because for 50 hours, you get to live on an entirely different planet,” said Stratton. “There is no night or day. It’s totally absorbing and completely out of this world.”

As per usual, the contest will begin Friday evening with Lawrence President Jill Beck asking the opening question. Beck will return Saturday morning to host “President’s Hour,” a 60-minute salute to all things presidential.

And in keeping with one of the most sacred of all Lawrence Great Midwest Trivia Contest traditions, this year’s first question will be the “super garruda” that was asked at the end of last year’s contest.

All teams that remember Mushtariy Madrahimova of Uzbekistan wrote “It is the hugest building I’ve ever been” for her comment in the guest book during a visit to the Capitol in Madison on December 11, 2004, will jump start this year’s contest with a cool 100 points.