Trivia On-Air Guide

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This article is composed of excerpts from my emails to the Mortal Wombat listserver of Spring 2004.

Guidelines for beginning question-writing

It's a good idea to phrase an on-air question to encourage short answers.

You do NOT need to have a realm, subrealm, and song match on questions when you initially submit them. If you do, that's just great and peachy and wonderful – but if you don't, we can always add them later. Don't neglect to send a good question just because you can't think of a brilliant subrealm or something. Provide them if you have them, but don't worry about it if you don't. The question is really the point - the rest is just frosting.

You DO need to check your facts. Seriously. It's very not-cool to get into a contest and find that the reason no one is getting the answer is because the answer is wrong. Generally, checking facts for a question takes roughly 30 seconds, so it's worth the effort.

And finally, when you get a good on-air idea, write it down, write it down, write it down! People are always having great ideas and then forgetting them before they reach their email. That's sad. Don't do that.

Guidelines for slightly more advanced question-writing

There are two of the keys to making a good factoid into a good Trivia question:

1. Specificity.

QUESTION: A man in Europe found something weird in his house. What was it?

BETTER QUESTION: Last January, Pierre Duchamp returned from a shopping trip to find something highly unexpected in his kitchen. What was it?

It's not hard to figure that there are roughly 5 squintillion correct answers to the first question, and no way for a team to know which we want. The second, though, narrows the field enough that we can safely assume there's only one answer. This means that teams are far less likely to yell at us, which is good.

2. Comic timing.

QUESTION: Joe Schmoe holds the record for most raw giant squid eaten in one sitting. How many raw giant squid did he eat?

BETTER QUESTION: On March 27, Joe Schmoe set a new world record by eating 67 of these in 30 minutes. What did Joe Schmoe eat?

This one's simple - the most entertaining part of a question should almost always be the answer. Eating 67 squid is hardly more interesting than eating 52 squid or 74 squid, but eating 67 squid *is* more interesting than eating 67 cheeseburgers. Think of the answer as the "punchline" to your question, and organize it accordingly. After all, if you're going to wait the length of a song to hear an answer, you want it to be worth the wait.

Song Lyrics and the FCC

Someone should review and revise this information as necessary, according either to FCC rules or having a DJ confirm these rules with WCFM.

Find out WCFM's regulations and procedures regarding obscenities in lyrics from the WCFM general manager. Songs with explicit lyrics will be limited to the wee hours of the morning, and should be preceded with warnings of inappropriate material by the DJs, so warn them in the schedule of songs and questions you give them.

Other DJ Duties

Because of WCFM's recently closer relationship with the FCC, DJs must ID their station hourly (?) and also provide regular weather reports during broadcast. Find out the rules for this as well, and consider reminding the DJs in your On-Airs sheet.

Song Length

Team Deine Mutter ist eine Geekenwehrmachtstaffel strove to keep all songs between 2 and 4.5 minutes long. The idea is not to have a song go on for too long but also make sure the teams have enough time to call in and make their guesses.

Many teams in recent years have opted to edit songs which are too long, to bring them within the recommended length guideline listed above. On rare occasion, teams have looped songs to make them long enough to use.

Song Matching

In general, a good song match gives oblique hints to the answer and may also relate, by song title or artist, to the topic or to the answer.

Also, given that Trivia goes on overnight, keep as many of the songs as you can perky and peppy. Save extra-peppy songs you don't have a good match for to have played during the 4:00 a.m. break.

The Perfect Williams Trivia Song

The perfect on-air song was released eight years ago. The perfect on-air song got a lot of radio airplay, and was all over MTV, too. It peaked in the Billboard Top 10. It's three minutes and five seconds long. Naturally, it's up-tempo, maybe even dancey. The group that performs it never had as big a hit again. If we're lucky, they had no other hits at all. Everybody playing Trivia used to hear the perfect on-air song three times a day, for 6 weeks, eight years ago, but hardly ever since then. The recording artist has a provocative band name (or else the song title's unusual-- hey, why not both?) which can be exploited to create a non-linear connection with a trivia question. his connection ideally involves sex, mayhem, or smug superiority on the part of the team asking the question.

To sum up: there is no perfect on-air song.

But, if you keep all the songs in the 2:30-3:40 range (editing mercilessly where required)....

....if you choose an eclectic mix of big bouncy hits, and naggingly familiar obscurities....

....if you play 90+ songs that haven't been used in previous Trivia contests....

....if you emphasize music from the last decade, but make sure to span a wide range of eras....

....if you keep the sound generally peppy, especially your first 10 songs and your last 30....

....if you get a lot of teammates involved in nominating songs and matches, so that the whole contest isn't filtered through one set of ears....

....if you really work hard, free associate, and don't give up looking until you have at least 20 truly witty matches, so that a question about doors doesn't always end up paired with a song by the Doors....

....well, then people will STILL complain about the music. But Baby Jesus in Heaven will know you did a good job.

--Des Devlin, 2004

Matching Questions And Songs

All of the examples in this section are from the January 2003 and January 2004 contests, ones in which I was a party to the music matching process. Please keep in mind that nothing in this section should be taken as gospel; however, these hints have been proven to work well, and are the minimum doses recommended by the FDA as part of a nutritional contest.

Once in a while, when trying to match songs to questions, nothing beats inspiration from above:

Question: According to a recent study, how do herring communicate with each other underwater?

Answer: Flatulence. Scientists call the fishies' system "FRTS"-- Fast Repetitive Tick Sounds.)

Song: "Tiny Bubbles" by Don Ho

But, of course, it's rarely that easy. Song matching for Trivia is definitely an art. But it's also a science. One way to win the hearts and minds of Trivia players is to think of songs that use plays on words involving either the answer or (for less of a hint), the question:

Question: As many websites will tell you, we're down to 155 days. For what?

Answer: For the Olsen Twins to become legal.

Song: "Let Me In" by the Sensations

Question: Uncombined alkali, carbonates and various mineral matter make up 0.56% of what product?

Answer: Ivory Soap.

Song: "No Scrubs" by TLC

Question: What was the biggest-selling album to be allowed to go out of print?

Answer: Milli Vanilli's debut.

Song: "Funkytown" by Lipps Inc.

Question: Doctors expressed concern in 1899 that a certain frenetic activity would "destroy the feminine organs of matrimonial necessity." What?

Answer: Bicycling.

Song: "Pop That Coochie" by 2 Live Crew

There's nothing wrong with the typical, yet good, "clue derived from the song/artist" match:

Question: The town nearest the center of Utah is Levan. How did Levan, Utah get its name?

Answer: "Navel" spelled backwards.

Song: "The Hardest Button to Button" by the White Stripes

Question: If you wanted to visit the pyramids of Malpighi, where would you go?

Answer: Your kidneys.

Song: "Stones" by Neil Diamond

One of the most hotly debated points about the Trivia song regards when to use easier songs. My opinion is that they should be used when:

1. The answer is a long, drawn out affair, perhaps with multiple parts, and there just wouldn't be time for a team to reasonably be expected to pay attention to the song as well;

2. The song match is too cute to pass up...

Question: What TV series featured a series of six female impersonators during its 17-year run?

Answer: "Lassie."

Song: "The Bitch is Back" by Elton John

3. The song has something that matches the question SO strongly, there's no substitute that would work as well:

Question: Hall of Fame NFL coach George Allen is known for developing the "nickel defense," as well as creating offseason training camps. However, another popular football tradition didn't work out as well for him. What happened in Allen's final game, when he was coaching Long Beach State?

Answer: His players dumped a keg of Gatorade over his head. He contracted pneumonia, and died weeks later.

Song: "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by Def Leppard

Of course, Parts 2 and 3 also work for obscure songs..

Question: There is a copy of the Koran at the "Mother of all Battles" mosque in Baghdad. What is unique about this particular holy book?

Answer: It is written in Saddam Hussein's blood.

Song: "My Heart is an Open Book" by Carl Dobkins Jr.

There's also much confusion as to how, specifically, one should match a song. Generally, a hint contained in the title is pretty safe. I would STRONGLY advise against using a song because a lyric in the song that is NOT the title contains a clue, UNLESS the lyric is repeated frequently enough that someone listening would associate the oft-repeated line with the hint that you are trying to convey . For example, if I had a question for which the answer was "a cobra", I would NOT use, say, "The End" by The Doors on the basis of the lyric "ride the snake", even though it is repeated once. ("Crawling King Snake", also by The Doors, would be fine if you really wanted to use The Doors). By the same token, it is also inadvisable to make a "double jump" in logic - I would certainly NOT use yet another Doors song for the same snake question on the basis that "Jim Morrison was into snakes, so "L.A. Woman" is a good clue".

It's okay for your clue to not be blindingly obvious, especially for one-word answers. In most instances, it's no fun to be handed the answer. Often a song that has a clue that requires a bit of thinking is your best bet:

Question: While Americans are notorious for not being able to carry a tune, Dave Barry noticed that we all seem to be able to do at least one thing on key. What is it?

Answer: Chant "Airball" (in the key of F).

Song: "Brick" by the Ben Folds 5

And, if you can combine that puzzler with bad taste, go for it:

Question: According to Wayne Campbell, what should you do if you see a woman who is so pretty that it makes you want to hurl, and why?

Answer: "Hurl. If you spew, and she comes back, she's yours. But if you blow chunks and she bolts, it was never meant to be, man."

Song: "Let It Loose" by the Rolling Stones

Question: Between prank calls on Comedy Central's "Crank Yankers," the camera pans through the town of Yankerville, revealing weird signs and activities. One billboard advertises the All-Virgin Brothel. What is this fine establishment's slogan?

Answer: "You Buy It, You Break It."

Song: "Just a Gigolo" by Dick Hyman

And a clue embedded in the song or artist name that requires actual Trivia knowledge to get the needed hint is ALWAYS a good idea...

Question: In 2002, the Swingline stapler company debuted the "Rio Red" model. What prompted this release?

Answer: Demand from fans of the movie "Office Space". (In recent years, Swingline had not offered a red stapler model.)

Song: "Grits Ain't Groceries" by Little Milton

Variety is the spice of Trivial life. Try to use as many styles, genres, and generations of musical breadth as you can. One easy, and good, way to do this is to let all the team members have a shot at the music matches. Twenty people looking at something will give you a much better shot at the interesting match that even two music mavens would have overlooked, as happened with this question from 2003:

Question: Who is the proofreader in "Dilbert"?

Answer: Anne L. Retentive.

Song: "Tighten Up" by Archie Bell & the Drells

Another good goal to shoot for is the "double match", in which the song and/or artist contain TWO useful clues to the Trivia answer. These are tough to write, but rewarding when successful:

Question: What was atypical about the opening credits for last year's "Daredevil"?

Answer: They were in both English and Braille.

Song: "Fingertips" by Stevie Wonder

Question: What is the unique literary accomplishment of the Star Trek novelization "The Brave and the Bold"?

Answer: It includes characters from all 5 "Star Trek" TV series.

Song: "Stay Together" by N.E.R.D.

And, once in a great while, a triple match may come along:

Question: The Razzies have long been the anti-Oscars of the film industry, dishonoring the worst movies and stars of the year. Who are the only two Razzie winners to actually show up at the ceremony to collect their awards in person?

Answer: Paul Verhoeven, Worst Director of 1995 for "Showgirls"; Tom Green, who won 4 Razzies in 2001 for "Freddy Got Fingered."

Song: "Come and Get It" by Badfinger

One good Trivia song category is that of songs that people know, but can't quite place. Songs that have been used recently that fit this criteria include "Are You Ready For This" by 2 Unlimited, which fits the bill because it's only played at EVERY arena event in the country; and this one, which was frequently played on a GAP commercial...

Question: Other than their being fictional, what is the common link between the following characters: Lisa Simpson, Ellie Arroway from "Contact", Frasier Crane's son Frederick, and The Blue Power Ranger?

Answer: They are all members of MENSA.

Song: "Start the Commotion" by the Wiseguys

One final point: It doesn't matter HOW clever your song match turns out, if you can't GET the darn song! One way to avoid this is to back into the match, by thinking of a keyword from the question, and typing that word into the search engine of the (legal, of course) music resource that you are using. That way, you actually have a shot of finding that great, horrible, or otherwise suitable song that will help to make your contest one that people remember fondly.

Matchfully yours, Steve Homer, 2004

Opinions Vary

Rachel, May 18, 2005:

"I've always thought that a perfect song match is one which

relates to the question but doesn't make the answer obvious. I'm willing to use a song that gives away the answer if it's a really funny pairing, or if the song is just too fantastic to resist (often, for me, that means it's a wacky cover, or something truly geektastic) but my preference is to go for songs that relate to the question but keep the answer obscured.

Then again, I don't think it's a hard-and-fast rule."

Laura, May 18, 2005:

"It can be rather annoying to start

googling for an answer and realize just as you're about to figure it

out that the song gives it away anyway..."

Sandy, May 18, 2005:

"The music wins you a separate point for a reason. It shouldn't be an automatic two points when you call in.

The way I learned it (and I've now run my fifth contest and selected music for four of them), a song should be related to the question but never hand you the answer -- except maybe if the question is really obscure without a strong hint, or it's just too funny a match to resist.

I expect this is one of those aesthetics-of-Trivia things that give each team its own style."