Working the Phones – The Other Side of The World’s Largest Trivia Contest

Author’s note: For those unfamiliar, this story is about an annual trivia contest that began as a fundraiser for the student-run radio station at the UW-Stevens Point 49 years ago. The contest begins on Friday night at 6 p.m. and runs for 54 hours straight until Sunday at midnight. Teams listen to the radio and call in answers to eight questions asked every hour. This year’s contest runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, April 13-15, and yes, yours truly will be answering phones Saturday night from 10 pm – 2 am. For more information about the contest, visit http://www.90fmtrivia.org.

And now for our story!

If you have lived in this town for any amount of time at all, you have most likely heard about the big Trivia contest. Each spring the masses return – old friends gathering to spend 54 hours answering dozens of questions about nothing that is important. It’s a really big deal, and a lot of fun, and you either get it or you don’t. There is no gray area.

It’s an awesome event because it appeals to a variety of people from all walks of life, interests and ages, and brings them together for a time. These sort of events are rare, so it’s important to participate when they come along.

I first played Trivia when I was in high school. I always liked trivial facts but never realized there was a contest where it might prove useful. I was a junior and my boyfriend suggested I find a team to play with, so I did – with a team called Mixed Nuts. It was a lot of fun, because back then we used books and took copious notes. There was no Internet, and we actually called people we thought would have the answers to tough questions.

We once called Alex Trebek to find out who had just won the most amount of money on Jeopardy ever. It was really exciting, because hey, who rings up Alex Trebek for a chat? We all gathered around the phone in anticipation as the question was read to him. He was sweet and polite, but then apologized because he had no idea.

My boyfriend’s team won Trivia that year, team Occupation Foole. I played for many years to follow, until my daughter happened along the Wednesday before the big contest in 1989. Trivia didn’t seem so important anymore once I became somebody’s mommy. I started up again a few years later with friends on a team named Late Night with Bob Keeshan. An awesome group of people, but once the Internet came along it just wasn’t the same for me. I hung in there a few years and then decided I had had enough.

Staying up for 54 hours once you are hitting middle age is pretty tough. But team loyalty is a wonderful thing, and I still get invited to play, and I always appreciate that. After all, I’m pretty good with remembering lyrics and the music montage guesses.

A few years ago my sister and her husband invited me to join a group answering phones for Trivia. It sounded great – an opportunity to see how the other side of Trivia works. I told her I was totally in, sign me up. We worked a shift from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, and it was so much fun, I have tried to do it every year since.

So what’s it like on the other side of Trivia? When you arrive at the radio station, a student in charge of the phone room gives everyone a rundown of what you will be doing, what to expect and the rules. Introductions are made, and you are asked to take a seat. There are 18 phones in the room, and none of them ring. If they did, we would never hear the answers being given, so each phone has a small red light that flickers when a call is coming in. There are six primary phones that receive calls first. If they are busy, the call is directed to one of two other phones.

You have a small stack of answer sheets that have 25 spaces for team identification numbers. You put your initials, phone I.D. and the question number at the top. There are many sharpened pencils lying about, and you go through quite a few during your shift. Answers are written on a large dry-erase board and the person in charge explains how specific the callers need to be with the answer. Once the question is read on air, the fun begins.

Since the phones are tiered, you get the same teams calling in to your phone again and again. You start to recognize their voices, and for me it’s harder to hear women than men. You basically say the same thing for each call. “Trivia, team number please!” You repeat the number back, and wait for the answer to the question. You say thank you, and hang up. If the answer is correct, you leave the number alone, if it’s not, you simply cross it out. Some callers speak very fast, some very slow, some are very polite, but you almost always hear “I’m in, I’m in!” as you make a connection with a team. It’s fun to hear the excitement in their voices. Having played for many years, I certainly can relate.

What’s especially great is when it’s a kid’s voice. You hope they get it right, and are happy when they do. Some people have a little fun when they call, giving strange answers or comments to make you laugh. One caller told me “I love you!” after giving his answer, which did make me laugh. Sometimes teams guess at the answer, which is amusing, too. I had someone call in the answer to a previous question, which I couldn’t quite figure out, but we are not allowed to say much beyond what’s in the script, so it remains a mystery.

The food is always great while answering phones. Local businesses and restaurants donate some great eats. We get a break at the top of the hour and this year we enjoyed gyros, pizza and some amazingly rich slices of cheesecake. There’s not a lot of time to enjoy them, though, before it’s time to sit down and answer phones again. The shift always seems to go too quickly for me.

I enjoy the energy of the process so much that by the time we need to go home, I am a little sad and wishing we had another four hours to go. I guess that shows that once Trivia gets in your blood, you can never really get enough of it.

Originally published May 11, 2012.

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