(First published in the May 9, 2019 issue of City Pages)
Jim Oliva will begin stepping down as the man behind Stevens Point’s famous trivia event since 1979. That’s a huge legacy.
At the 90FM office: Jim Oliva, known as The Oz, will begin passing along the showrunner duties of the “World’s Largest Trivia Contest” next year.
At the end of WWSP radio’s huge, live annual trivia contest in April, listeners got a surprise. Jim Oliva, also known simply as The Oz, announced he would begin stepping down as the event’s showrunner, main question writer, and ringleader of the crazy circus that locally is simply referred to as “Trivia.”
Normally, such an announcement would hardly seem noteworthy. After all, there are trivia contests all over the place, and most people would be hard-pressed to name the person organizing them.
But this person is The Oz, and the number of people who play in this “World’s Largest Trivia Contest” is equal to about a third of the population of Stevens Point itself. When you consider that The Oz is a household name in town, and that many Stevens Point natives spread out in the U.S. return for the 54-hour trivia contest, and that some of the top teams spend all year studying trivia, compiling cereal boxes and candy wrappers because they might be fodder for trivia questions, and that people have been known to follow The Oz in stores to see what he’s buying in hopes of getting clues to the questions, and that a professional documentary film was made about the event, well, then you can start to understand why it’s a big deal.
Also consider that, word is, a grocery store nearly went out of business after new management pulled its sponsorship from Trivia. The contest brings in millions in economic impact to the area.
Oliva didn’t start the trivia contest, and he wasn’t even the first Oz — the moniker given to the event ringleader for the past 50 years. The contest began on the UWSP campus in 1969 as a fundraiser for the university radio station, WWSP 90FM. Oliva, a native of Chicago, took over running the annual contest in 1979.
But it’s a commonly held opinion that Oliva made Trivia what it is today. It’s not just a contest in Stevens Point, it’s baked into the very fabric of Stevens Point itself. The city’s mayor has been a trivia player for much of his life, playing on a team called the Franklin Street Burnouts. He literally bought his house for Trivia. As Mayor Mike Wiza explains, the house belonged to a relative and was used by Wiza’s team as its headquarters, year-round storing magazines, movies and other paraphernalia that come in handy to answer trivia questions. When that relative decided to sell, it was simply easier to buy the house than move all that Trivia gear.
So people were shocked to learn that Oliva would be stepping down. For tens of thousands of people over the decades, The Oz and his iconic, laid back voice is Trivia.
Becoming a phenomena
Oliva first became involved in the budding contest in 1977, he says during an interview at the 90FM radio offices, which also is home to his weekly radio show, “The Saturday Morning Freak Show.” In 1978, the student writing the contest was about to graduate, and the station manager said to Oliva, “You’re the oldest guy here, you do it.”
“I will give it a try,” Oliva recalls saying. “’I don’t know how good I will be.’”
It turned out Oliva, who once taught math at Ben Franklin Junior High and opened Mom’s Computers while taking radio shifts at the station, was pretty good after all. So the station manager asked him to continue writing the contest.
While past trivia writers viewed the contest as being them against the teams—the idea is to stump players to a reasonable degree—Oliva says he never had that attitude. To him, the weekend-long contest should be about having fun. “If I stop having fun, I stop writing,” Oliva says.
WWSP’s Trivia was always pretty big but it has grown in size and complexity during Oliva’s time as The Oz. The first contest under Oliva had 200 teams and grew to more than 400 teams at its peak. This year saw 341 teams competing.
In the 1990s, the internet changed the contest significantly, Oliva says. With most answers just a Google search away, he had to carefully rethink how to word the hundreds of questions.
For example, once he could have asked, “Who was the actor who played Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver?” Now that information is a click away. Instead, Oliva says he might word the question as: “An actor played a role on a black and white TV sitcom. He had two sons and was married, and his son was the star of the show. What is the first and last name of the actor?” That question cannot be easily searched because players must first determine which TV show fits that question.
Around Stevens Point, you can’t mistake when Trivia Weekend occurs. Signs on nearly every street announce a team’s headquarters, and business signs announcing the contest abound. Many people from Stevens Point who moved on to other places return to play the 54-hour contest. That’s two days plus six hours straight, by the way. Many players take Monday off from work to recover.
For some it’s a casual opportunity to get together with old friends; for others, it’s serious business. Members of top teams spend all year collecting paraphernalia they think might come up in questions, and take notes on movies and TV shows or anything they think The Oz will notice enough to put in a question. Teams often delegate various categories to certain members. For top teams in the past—such as Network, Dad’s Computers, and Festivus for the Rest of Us—Trivia is their sport and the Trivia trophy is their Super Bowl ring.
On the other end, some teams earn zero points, such as Space Monkey Mafia and Wine Her Diner 49er in 2018.
As you can see, team names are one of the most entertaining aspects of the contest.
It’s more than just a series of questions. Besides the eight questions asked every hour over 90FM, there are the running questions—literally, they run—which requires teams to meet at a specific location and gather information within running distance of the site. There’s also the Trivia Stone, in which teams traverse all over for clues and get their trivia book stamped. There are music questions, featuring snippets of songs that teams must correctly identify.
All teams call in their answers within a certain period of time. Throughout the 54 hours you’ll hear The Oz (or another staffer relieving him for a shift) announcing over the radio, “Phones down! Phones down!” WWSP operates a big call center to field and tally the responses, with a staff of UWSP students and even local celebrities. The team with the most points wins. Teams can have any number of players, but as you can imagine, organizing too many people poses a challenge; hence, the need for team headquarters.
The contest weekend starts Friday with a Trivia Parade and a movie at Rogers Cinema before trivia begins (titles have included Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, and Singing in the Rain).
“I wouldn’t be that far off base if I put it in the perspective of fantasy sports leagues or NASCAR followings,” says Mayor Mike Wiza.
Wiza is a member of the Franklin Street Burnouts, which is headquartered at his house. Wiza attended the 2006 premiere of a documentary on Stevens Point’s event the Trivia contest, called Triviatown, in New York. He says people in the audience were flabbergasted. “It was fun watching their faces,” Wiza says. “It was like they wanted to look away, but couldn’t. It was unbelievable to them that people do this, with basements full of cereal boxes and candy wrappers. Anywhere else in the country, that’s hoarding. Here it is encouraged.”
Wiza says the contest under Oliva is so engrained in Stevens Point that when Copps grocery store transitioned to a new corporate owner and dropped its soda sponsorship of Trivia, a boycott and letter writing campaign ensued. Wiza says Copps nearly had to close one of its locations in Stevens Point. Prior to that, Wiza heard that Trivia weekend had been its second-biggest sales weekend of the year. Meanwhile, other companies rushed to fill the gap, recognizing that Trivia sponsorship had tremendous value in the city.
A Stevens Point legend
By most measures, The Oz is a local celebrity, but Oliva shrugs at the suggestion.
For accomplishments, Oliva is more likely to cite his mentorship of young radio personalities, or his time as a math teacher. He tells a story about a young student who was doing poorly but who, Oliva recognized, was capable of much more. He told her as much, and worked with her until her grades dramatically improved. She was later killed in a car crash, which affected him deeply.
That’s the man behind the celebrity.
“He won’t admit it, but 100%, Jim is iconic,” Wiza says. “He has people who follow him around town, people will follow him to the grocery store. There was a video store clerk who worked at the place where [Oliva] rented movies, and would give out the info of what movies he was renting.”
One Trivia player even built a shrine to Oliva, which appears in Triviatown.
The Oz has a conversational style that’s unique, says Dave Kallaway, radio host at WIFC in Wausau. Kallaway, a friend to The Oz and a Trivia player himself on a team called The Beer Pigs, says he met Oliva when he took a celebrity shift at the Trivia call center more than 20 years ago. “One of my favorite parts of Trivia is when he goes through the team names,” Kallaway says. “His personality really comes through.”
Chuck Kania has been playing since 1991, and in 2001 with friends created the Trivia team Festivus for the Rest of Us (they won this year’s contest). He says Trivia wouldn’t be what it is today without Oliva, the only Oz he has known. “His caring and passion about not only Trivia’s success but also the station, 90FM,” really shines through, Kania says. “Oz does such a great job bringing unique individuals and unique groups of people together through Trivia.”
Handing over the reins
PHOTO COURTESY RICK LAFROMBOIS
Long-time trivia player David Coulthurst of Wausau, pictured here after the 2017 contest, had agreed to become the new “Oz” of WWSP’s annual, 54-hour trivia event.
Oliva, 73, thought about retiring 15 years ago. But he loves doing the contest, and when someone asked what he would do if he weren’t The Oz, Oliva responded that he didn’t know. “I thought, ‘If Johnny Carson can do the Tonight Show for 30 years, I can do Trivia for 30 years,’” Oliva says.
But Oliva had to face the fact that he won’t live forever. He worried what would happen if he didn’t have any plans in place to pass on The Oz title and responsibilities. “Someone has to know how to do all the stuff. Know all the contacts. They need to know what people to call, what to ask, how to get stuff done. All those things need to be passed down.”
Oliva decided it was time. After asking his WWSP co-writer John Eckendorf, who turned it down, he turned to long-time player Dave Coulthurst, of Wausau. The 52-year-old marketing executive and member of the Trivia Beer Pigs team (the same one Dave Kallaway belongs to).
Coulthurst says he had to think about it. The event is an enormous responsibility, not just for the people who participate. It’s the college radio station’s biggest fundraiser, and has a huge impact on the community. Coulthurst says an economic study showed Trivia brings in $3.5–4.5 million each year to the Stevens Point area.
The trivia contest also is important culturally, as a selling point for the university, and as a spirited connection between the university and the community. “It helps students choose UWSP,” Coulthurst says. Two weddings have sparked from the Beer Pigs team alone, he says.
Coulthurst wanted to do his part in seeing the contest succeed and accepted taking on the role as The Oz. He agreed to it more than a year ago, but everyone kept the secret until Trivia weekend this year, April 12-14. “I felt that my heart is in seeing this succeed,” Coulthurst says.
The succession won’t happen immediately. It’s a huge task, after all. For the next few years Coulthurst will be an apprentice to Oliva, taking notes and learning the ropes. Oliva is unsure what his involvement will be after Coulthurst fully takes the reins, but says he’d probably not remove himself completely.
In the meantime, Coulthurst will work to continue the Oliva’s legacy. “I think the area has a lot to thank Jim for,” Coulthurst says. “He helped make this a long-term success for the station, the university and the community.”