MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) — A gawky, lanky Ball State freshman by the name of David Letterman walked up to senior WBST student program director Al Rent in 1965 and told him the radio station needed to change its format.
WBST played only classical music and Letterman wanted rock n’ roll. Rent preferred rock n’ roll, too, but he said there was no way WBST management would agree to the switch, so he came up with a compromise.
The radio station signed off at 10:30 each night, and Rent offered Letterman a rock n’ roll show at midnight. He and Letterman posted fliers all over campus for “David Letterman’s Make It or Break It.”
Turns out, it wasn’t the night a star was born. The program lasted only a week. But even then, Letterman showed glimpses of what was to come in his remarkable career as a late night talk show host.
The Ball State alumnus announced on a Thursday taping of his “Late Show” on CBS that he will step down in 2015, when his current contract expires. The 66-year-old Letterman has the longest tenure of any late night talk show host in U.S. television history. He has been on the air for 32 years since creating “Late Night” at NBC in 1982.
The comedic icon has made a long climb up the ladder since “David Letterman’s Make It or Break It” debuted nearly 50 years ago on Ball State’s campus airwaves.
Rent said Letterman had a segment in which he picked the worst possible rock ‘n’ roll songs, aired them and then let the first caller determine whether to make it or break it. The first few nights the callers picked “break it” and listeners could hear Letterman respond by crunching the 45s.
One caller, though, said, “Make it” and Letterman responded by telling the caller he would give him the 45 if he met him the next morning at the radio station. Letterman didn’t show up nor did the caller, but a line of students greeted Rent and Bill Tomlinson, the head of the department.
Tomlinson asked Rent why all of the students were there, and Rent told him they were fans of the station. Rent then kept the charade going by sliding the 45 into a classical musician’s album cover and giving it to a student.
The “David Letterman’s Make It or Break It” show lasted only a couple of more episodes before Rent pulled the program off the airwaves.
“I was the first guy to hire him and first guy to fire him,” Rent, now the director of relationship marketing and community relations for BSU, told The Star Press.
Rent decided to move Letterman to the news department back then, and he soon regretted that decision, too.
Letterman compiled national and state wire copy for the broadcaster to read on the airwaves. He pulled pranks on his fellow students by putting stories he wrote into the pile.
“They were perfectly nonsensical and they’d get halfway into it until they realized they were had,” Rent said.
One of Letterman’s favorite pranks was to make up information about classical musicals while reading their biographies on the air. Rent said the station took a few calls from professors in the music department reporting that Letterman’s information was incorrect.
“He was so spontaneous you could see it in his eyes,” Rent said. “His mind was always churning. He was totally different from the get go.”
Letterman later switched over to a new campus radio station — WAGO AM 570 (now WCRD-91.3 FM) — where he was granted more freedom to voice his quick-witted sense of humor.
His Sigma Chi fraternity brother, Gary Glogas, said Letterman was the speaker whenever potential pledges came to the fraternity house.
“He’d have them rolling over and over and over laughing,” said Glogas, a Dunkirk resident who described Letterman as down to earth.
Glogas recalls a time he, Letterman and a couple of other fraternity brothers were eating late one night at Big Wheel Restaurant on Madison Street. Glogas, who stutters, told the waitress, “I’d like a ham, a ham, a ham, a hamburger.”
Without missing a beat, Letterman said, “He only wants one, ma’am.”
Letterman graduated from Ball State in 1969 and has paid back his alma mater 10-fold in publicity.
“I can’t think of anybody else on television at his level who’s talked about his university as much,” Rent said.
Back in 2000, when the Ball State football team was stringing together one of the 10 longest losing streaks in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I) history, Letterman had a weekly Monday segment about it, poking fun at his alma mater as he showed a clip from the game, which Rent provided him.
“I was raked over the coals by the football coaches who’d say, ‘You have to stop this,'” Rent said. “And we said, ‘No, we’re getting the type of exposure you can’t buy.'”
Ball State snapped its losing streak of 21 games by beating Miami of Ohio. The day before that game, Letterman asked guest Magic Johnson, a basketball hall of fame inductee, to provide the team a pep talk before the game.
Rent presented Letterman with the game ball after the Ball State win. Letterman joked, “‘I’d like to think I had more than a little something to do with this.”
Letterman returned to the Ball State campus on Sept. 7, 2007 for the dedication of a $21 million communication and media building named on his behalf. That marked his first visit to Ball State since its 1979 homecoming.
The alumnus made his return a memorable one, as he entertained a crowd of 3,000-plus at the ceremony.
Letterman brought his then 4-year-old son Harry and said, “I hope one day it means something to my son that his dad’s name is on a building. Maybe it will help impress the girls.”
He complimented President Jo Ann Gora for her “tremendous legs” as she sat nearby.
The college-student dominated crowd erupted in cheers and then laughs when Letterman read his “Top 10 List of Good Things About Having Your Name on a Building.” He drew the loudest response with his No. 6, “I’ll always have a place to crash after a night at the Locker Room.”
That visit inspired him to recruit fellow celebrities to speak at his alma mater as part of the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series, which began in spring semester of 2009. Legendary newscaster Ted Koppel spoke in the first year of the series.
“Dave has been very generous with the university, not the least with his time and talent,” Gora said in a press release Friday. “He puts a great deal of thought into the guests he brings to campus, and our students are very grateful for the experiences he provides.”
Letterman has participated in the series, hosting Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, Rachel Maddow of the MSNBC prime-time hit “The Rachel Maddow Show” and most notably Oprah Winfrey.
Letterman moderated a 90-minute discussion with the famous philanthropist, businesswoman, talk show host and motivational speaker Nov. 26, 2012 in Emens Auditorium.
Winfrey shared her inspirational from rags to riches story, speaking candidly to Letterman and the audience about growing up in the Jim Crow South and being raped at age 9. Gora credited Letterman for masterfully moderating the discussion.
“His range is remarkable; he can engage a roomful of college students as well as a legend such as Oprah Winfrey,” Gora said.
Gora said Letterman will continue to be “a vital member of the Ball State community” after he steps down from the “Late Show.”
Rent never imagined hearing a future Ball State president say that about Letterman back in his “David Letterman’s Make It or Break It” days. Rent just hoped the gawky, lanky freshman’s pranks wouldn’t get him fired as student program director.
Letterman rebounded from losing his radio show as a Ball State freshman to become a TV icon, whose quick-witted sense of humor has entertained millions of viewers each weekday night for the past 32 years.
Said Rent: “He’s impacted television like no other comic.”
Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com