By Craig Spear
In the winter of 1968 the Vietnam War was heating up, LBJ was President, Laugh-In aired for the first time on TV, and Planet of the Apes opened at the Varsity Theater on Lincoln Way.
The Beatles’ latest hit, Hello, Good Bye, was playing on the radio. Spooky and Chain of Fools were climbing the charts.
The university was run by gray-faced bureaucrats, women had to be in their dorms by eleven, and Don Smith, “a bearded, motorcycle riding” ag student (in the words of the Bomb) had recently been elected student body president.
Strains of 60s-style radicalism were rippling through our conservative land-grant campus. There were occasional “sit-ins.” And Smith, scourge of the administration, promised to drag Iowa State “kicking and screaming” into the 20th century.
I was an English major in my sophomore year and co-manager of KISU, the student-run radio station located then, as now, in the basement of Friley Hall, a few doors down from the “T-Room” – a snack bar hideaway popular with us radio rats.
KISU (formerly KMRI) had been on the air since 1949. The studios were cluttered and shabby. Second-hand radio gear, constantly in need of repair, was crammed in every available corner.
Nevertheless, it was a haven for tinkerers, music lovers, and aspiring DJs like me. What’s more, despite our modest accommodations, we served a sizeable closed-circuit radio audience of some several thousand students living in nine university-run dormitories.
The preceding few months, starting in the fall of 1967, I had been circulating an idea among my 12-member board of directors for an audience-participation radio contest. The premise was simple: broadcast some quiz questions, award points to listeners with the right answers, and string the competition out over a long weekend.
The idea wasn’t original with me, but it had only come to my attention the previous summer during a meet-up with an old high school friend at a Cedar Rapids pizza parlor.
Phil York, then a student at Lawrence College – a small liberal arts school in Appleton, Wis., had, like me, signed on with the campus radio station. We were both new to broadcasting and had a lot of rookie radio stories to share. But one story in particular stuck with me.
At the close of spring semester in 1967, the Lawrence station hosted a campus-wide trivia contest. This came on the heels of a similar broadcast the year before. The weekend-long competition, as Phil described it, became a campus obsession. A record number of Lawrence students took part. That weekend radio event turned out to be groundbreaking in other ways, too.
Campus trivia competitions had been around for a long time. Intercollegiate “academic bowls” were common on college campuses. Many were inspired by the long running GE College Bowl, a Sunday morning network television show dating back to the 50s. Then too, daytime television quiz shows, like Jeopardy, which hit the air in 1964, were well-known to TV viewers.
College competitions were often staged in student unions or campus gymnasiums. Quiz Masters emceed, teams of trivia experts hunched around cafeteria-style folding tables, and on-lookers cheered them on.
James deRosset, a Lawrence senior math major, apparently attended one of those quizathons at his girlfriend’s campus in nearby Beloit. Unimpressed, deRosset returned to Appleton in the spring of 1966 with a plan to organize an on-campus trivia contest of his own.
As the story goes, deRosset shared his ideas with roommates who, as luck would have it, worked at the campus radio station. Somehow, out of those late-night brainstorming sessions, the idea of hosting a campus-wide trivia contest over the college radio station first came to light. College radio—social media of its era—would play host to a “virtual” campus trivia contest.
That same year—1966—and apparently by coincidence, Williams College, an elite northeastern private school, also began hosting a campus radio trivia contest. It was an abbreviated affair—lasting only 8 hours—and aired at the end of spring and fall semesters. Owing perhaps to its east coast locale, the contest drew the attention of major media outlets like the New York Times and the Boston Globe.
Determining who gets credit for hosting the first college radio trivia contest has long been debated. The distinction is probably academic. Or, in the words of one observer, “trivial.”
Following that consequential summer meeting with Phil York, I began pondering whether such a radio contest would work at Iowa State. There were several points in our favor: KISU had a large, loyal residence hall audience. Every listener was a potential player. The contest could easily be folded into our regular, ongoing music programming. And maybe most important, the structure of the university residence hall system created natural rivalries among individual houses.
Not everyone agreed. Lawrence and Williams—small, community-based private colleges—attracted only a few hundred players. Our carrier-current signal reached 10 times that many.
There were doubts if ISU residence hall students, so widely dispersed, could be drawn into a competition with one another. And if they could, would there be sufficient enthusiasm to sustain a weekend-long contest?
Despite some skepticism, our management team eventually, cautiously, agreed to take on the project.
We mobilized our staff, signed on volunteers, assembled a talent roster of 16 DJs to host 42 hours of programming, and prepared for a February launch. I asked two volunteers to compile trivia questions on 3×5 index cards.
(Looking back, this part of the contest was the one least thought through. I hadn’t anticipated the possibilty of challenges to our questions or answers. No one thought to appoint a Quiz Czar with authority to settle disputes. This was another of several critical oversights that would fuel the pandemonium that awaited us just a few weeks away.)
Finally, there was the matter of a name. What would the contest be called? I wanted something unique and descriptive. Something that would differentiate us from generic “trivia” contests. Something that would resonate with listeners. A long list of “possibles” were rejected. One name seemed to stand out: Kaleidoquiz.
As the launch date approached, we began airing promos and teasers. Our stack of 3×5 index cards grew to a couple hundred. After several weeks of preparation, we were finally ready.
On February 9, 1968, at 6:30 in the morning, a recorded contest intro hit the air—“It’s time to play…Kaleidoquiz!” The morning shift DJ opened his microphone and read the first Kaleidoquiz question. Something to do with Robert Goulet and Clarabell the Clown, as I remember.
A handful of us, hovering over the announcer’s shoulder, waited for two incoming listener lines to blink. Nothing. Finally, a single call. A record request.
More music, a station break, and the contest intro aired again: “It’s time to play…” The announcer offered up another quiz question. Another long pause. Finally, a single phone line sputtered to life. The first-ever Kaleidoquiz player had come up with the right answer!
“What do I win?” he asked.
After an hour or two, listeners began to get the hang of it. Quiz questions aired every 10 minutes. Occasionally, 50- or 100-point bonus questions were thrown in the mix. Callers were given the length of a single record to phone in answers and score points for their house.
As morning wore on, the now-familiar contest jingles were airing at steady, rhythmic intervals. “It’s time to play…” Call volume, slowly, but noticeably, began to build.
Around noon, the first signs of a scary momentum began taking hold. Incoming phone lines flashed furiously and relentlessly. Scorekeepers behind the studio plate-glass window acted out a panicky pantomime as they struggled to keep up with phone calls.
Phone company records would later show 35,000 dial-ins attempted that first day.
By early afternoon, dorm residents could no longer get dial tones. Frustrated callers heard only scrambled cross-talk on their receivers. Desperate to get through, more callers jammed the lines.
Kaleidoquiz was trending.
By late afternoon classrooms across campus had emptied out. Absent phone service, university offices began closing, unable to do business.
By early evening the first contingent of phone company representatives showed up at our studios—stern-faced and disapproving.
There was talk of shutting us down. Negotiations ensued. Finally, conceding the obvious, it was agreed seeing it through was the best course of action.
We imposed a two record time limit, and one caller per house. Pressure on the network eased. The phone system began to right itself.
Meanwhile, over the ceiling-mounted monitors, “It’s time to play…” was heard yet again. Another round of trivia questions hit the air.
Across campus, Friday night plans were scrapped. take-out pizza orders soared. Residents settled in for all-nighters. KQ roared into the night.
At midnight Saturday, 42 hours later, nearly two days after the first Kaleidoquiz questions were broadcast to an unsuspecting audience, KQ finally came to a climactic close.
Meeker House, with 1845 points, was declared the first Kaleidoquiz winner. Kimble House and Wilkinson House battled to second- and third-place finishes.
Two days later, KISU co-manager Bill Monroe would tell an Iowa State Daily reporter, with some understatement, “We had no idea it would be so popular.”
Fifty years have passed since that first Kaleidoquiz weekend rocked the ISU campus. KURE, the campus radio successor to KISU, celebrated the 50th anniversary with another KQ broadcast this past March.
Over that time, any number of student radio-based trivia contests have popped up, fizzled, and occasionally persisted, on college campuses across the country.
Lawrence College, arguably home of one of the first campus-based trivia contest (by 22 months) abandoned live radio broadcasts for a web-based version of the game a decade ago.
Williams, known for its biannual competitions, continues to host trivia contests at the end of each semester.
All of which makes Kaleidoquiz, as now aired by KURE, perhaps the largest and longest-running college radio based trivia contest in America.
Over several decades, hundreds of thousands of Iowa State Students, sometimes spanning more than one generation, have played the game. Thousands more have listened in. KURE’s KQ Director, Isaac Bries, calls Kaleidoquiz an Iowa State tradition rivaling the once preeminent—and now defunct—Veishea in popularity.
Looking back, it may seem odd that a campus trivia contest, launched during the tumultuous 60s, hearkening back in many ways to a quaint, less aware era of panty raids and phone booth stuffing, would survive the societal changes of the past half century and still remain as popular as ever.
But good ideas have a life of their own. From 3×5 note cards to laptops and Google searches, the essential elements of Kaleidoquiz are still in fashion: an out-sized challenge, a competitive group of friends, and a slightly off-kilter sense of humor.
As radio promotions go, 50 years is a good run.
Craig Spear (’71 distributed studies), the originator of Kaleidoquiz at Iowa State, is a writer and producer living in San Francisco, Calif.