Community Idea Stations to cancel "Challenge 23" 

"Battle" Hardened

One of the latest ideas from the Community Idea Stations was to cancel "Challenge 23," the 22-year-old game show that pits high-school teams of smart kids against each other in an IQ showdown.

Citing declining viewership and limited production resources, a programming executive announced last week that the academic bowl will retire in May.

What? For some history, Style turns to Frank Soden.

Soden, a former sportscaster and a legend in Virginia broadcasting, spent 16 years slinging questions on what was then called "Battle of the Brains."

"I enjoyed it as much as anything I've ever done," says Soden, who is 82.

In the late '70s, Safeway, which sponsored the show before Ukrop's did, called on Soden when the previous "Brains" host moved to California. "They felt they knew me, I guess, and thought I could handle it," Soden says.

The first show — back then, they aired live — made him "rather nervous," he says. "I didn't want to sidetrack the thinking of the students involved."

He soon fell into a routine. Each week, he would sit down with about 300 questions for the following week's show, reading them over five to 10 times each. "I would have the trusty dictionary and other information by my side," he recalls. "I just wanted to be sure that I didn't foul up in any way."

During the show, he ad-libbed his openings and closings, and interviewed the students at what he calls "halftime."

"Sometimes you would find one school a little more entertaining than another," he says. Soden recalls Courtland High School in Spotsylvania County, whose team would always wear carnations. "I would call them the carnation kids," Soden says.

Then there was Amanda Goad, Richmond's spelling-bee queen, who went on to appear on "Jeopardy," and whose "Brains" team advanced to a national quiz show. Soden also fondly recalls John Rowe, a student from St. Christopher's, who appeared on the show numerous times.

"I admired each group that went on there," Soden says. He also admired the show's staff and its producer, Sharon Johnson.

Soden distinctly remembers one show during a time his heart was giving him trouble. For the entire show, Soden had trouble catching his breath. He gasped for air whenever the camera wasn't on him, but went on with the show. When the filming was over, he says, "they had the rescue squad waiting for me." He ended up OK.

"Battle of the Brains" may have featured school kids, but it was no kiddie show. The complex questions sometimes befuddled the host, who admits he learned a few things. "I had never been one who was able to go to college," he says. "But I felt I got a college education every week in the questions that were asked."

In the mid-'90s, Soden got a phone call. The station's executives had decided "that they wanted to add more humor than I was perhaps giving it," he recalls. He still disagrees with that decision: "I never felt that was the place for it, because you didn't want to break the concentration of the kids too much by veering off the intended course." He suspects he was getting too old for the show. He was replaced by former sportscaster Bill King.

For Soden, it was an amicable parting. And in May there will be another when the show goes off the air.

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