Although David Letterman has had two successful late-night shows running over the last 33 years, his first program lasted only a week.
But whether it was with his small start on Ball State radio or his 6,000 episodes of “Late Night” and “Late Show,” Al Rent, Ball State director of relationship marketing and community relations, said the Ball State alumnus “knew no fear.”
“Things were funnier [in the 1960s] because you knew no fear, and the older you get the more hesitant you are to make mistakes,” Rent said. “Well, god love him, Dave never worried about making those mistakes. He just kept persevering, and I fully believe that’s why he is where he is today.”
Letterman's final show is tonight, and Rent said he has left a “huge mark on the industry.”
“He reinvented what happens in late night talk and in comedy and they’ve become totally synonymous with him,” Rent said.
Letterman arrived at Ball State in 1965, when Rent was a senior and student program director for the radio station WBST.
“Ball State was evolving, the technology was starting to pick up pace, and there were a lot of students who got really interested in wanting to become the next DJ or television personality,” Rent said.
Letterman was one of those students.
Rent gave Letterman a job at the station writing biographies for classical composers to preview them before the station played their songs. The station primarily played classical music and news at the time.
“As he got his chops and felt more confident, he started writing his own biographies of the composers so he started making up things about their lives,” Rent said. “Then we started getting calls from music faculty saying Mozart was not illegitimate.”
After receiving calls from music professors, Bill Tomlinson, chairman of the radio and TV department, asked Rent what was going on. The conversation ended with Rent becoming the, “first guy to hire [Letterman] and the first guy to fire him.”
Rent moved him to writing news, but Letterman continued to make up stories.
“He would slip in absurd stories about whatever his mind allowed him to,” Rent said. “It would be like him doing a stand up bit today or a monologue on his show.”
Not long after Rent moved Letterman off writing news, Letterman’s first program, “Make It or Break It,” began.
Letterman told Rent that WBST needed to start playing rock and roll. Rent refused at first but eventually Letterman convinced him but only after midnight.
So, Rent advertised the show and the two arrived at the station at midnight on a Monday — even though the station signed off at 10 p.m.
“We played rock and roll for an hour,” Rent said. “I don’t know what I was thinking, I don’t know why I wasn’t scared, but he DJed it and then he would play his game called Make It or Break It.”
Each night, Letterman would play a song from the B-side of a record, which Rent described as usually “very average to awful.” Letterman asked the audience to call in and vote to make or break the song. If they voted break it, Letterman would break and crunch the record on the air.
“We got somewhere between 75 and 150 calls on a night, and that’s a lot of calls in a short period of time,” Rent said. “Just, constantly, all the lines were ringing.”
For the first two nights, the audience voted to break the record. But on Wednesday, they voted to make it. So Letterman said he would give the record to the first person to come into the radio station at 8 a.m. the next morning.
The next morning, there was no Letterman.
More than 40 students were lined up at the station, and it was up to Rent to figure out what to do. Tomlinson was there, and he asked Rent what had happened.
Tomlinson did not know about “Make It or Break It,” and Rent didn’t want him to. So Rent “didn’t lie. I just didn’t fill in all the facts.” He told Tomlinson that they “conducted a survey. We wanted to know if students liked the music we were playing.”
When Letterman came in that day and said he was ready for Thursday’s “Make It or Break It,” Rent told him they were ending the show.
“We tried a lot of different things, we had no fear in those particular days and Dave had a lot of humor,” Rent said. “That was my time with Dave. And we had good fun together, but then I graduated and he continued on.”
Later on, Letterman started another radio station, WAGO, with some of his friends. It was a carrier-current station, which meant it was only broadcast to campus and was not technically on the air. Because of that, normal radio station regulations did not apply.
“It was bizarre, but it was their station and they could do with it what they wanted to because it wasn’t ‘on the air,’” Rent said. “And that’s how he began sort of honing his craft and having that kind of Letterman freedom that he always needed.”
Since Letterman graduated from Ball State in 1969, he has started an endowed scholarship program at the university, had the David Letterman Communication and Media Building named after him and started a Ball State lecture series.
Former Ball State president Jo Ann Gora and the Board of Trustees decided to name the media building after him in 2007. Letterman initially denied the honor, but later accepted and visited campus for the building’s opening.
“He has never forgotten his alma mater,” Gora said in a 2007 interview. “He has always wanted to support the students and he has always had a special place in his heart for students like himself who are aspiring for careers in radio and television.”
But he started giving back to Ball State long before 2007. In 1985, he created an endowed scholarship for telecommunications students at the university. The scholarship provides three awards each year at $10,000, $5,000 and $3,333.
In 1986, he donated money to start the campus’s current radio station: WCRD. The station’s last three call letters stand for “Cardinal Radio Dave.”
Zach Huffman, a senior telecommunications and journalism news major, served as general manager of WCRD in 2014-15. He said “there would not be a student radio opportunity” at the university without people like Letterman.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity to work for WCRD, to have it as a backbone and a staple of CCIM for Ball State, and none of that would be possible if it wasn’t for [Letterman],” Huffman said. “He’s been a pivotal aspect and a pivotal component to the success of Ball State.”
Then, after the Letterman Building was named after him in 2007, he started the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series. A few times a year, the series brings in professionals and industry leaders to speak to students.
Letterman himself visited campus to talk with three of those speakers: Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, in 2010; Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show,” in 2011; and media proprietor Oprah Winfrey in 2012.
As Letterman continues to thank Ball State with his donations, Ball State returns the favor.
“From my standpoint, and really I speak for the institution too, we couldn’t be more proud,” Rent said. “Not only of his success but the fact that he has gone on to talk about the opportunities and the education that he had here in such a positive way ... We are so appreciative about what he’s done.”
Beyond direct contributions to campus, Letterman has also mentioned Ball State numerous times on his shows.
“If you look at the other celebrities, how many of them do you know where they went to school? He could have just sort of forgotten and never brought it up,” Rent said. “But he has constantly showed his pride in the university ... He is so prideful of his education and his opportunities and his time here. He keeps talking about it.”
“If I had to spend money to market the university on national television on a show like Letterman, at least during the football time,” Rent said. “... we calculated how much time he gave us on the air and how much it would be worth at national ad rates, and it was over $12 million for that time. We don’t have $12 million to spend on advertising on a national level.”
Letterman has raised the university’s profile, Rent said, because he constantly talks about the university on his show.
“For Dave and us, in my mind, it was always I don’t care what he says about us, just say something about us,” he said. “And it becomes a marriage. So if you like Dave, you like Ball State. If you like Ball State, you may like Dave.”
Rent expects Letterman’s contribution to continue after his retirement. He said he thinks Letterman will come back to Ball State, whether it is for his lecture series or for something else.
“Dave has allowed our profile to gain significant height, just by being associated with him and him with us ... We would love to have more winning athletic teams, and we will, that comes cyclically,” Rent said. “But Dave is a constant.”