David Letterman has spent more time than anyone hosting late-night talk shows on major TV networks. But his broadcasting career began with a Ball State radio program that lasted a week.
Letterman launched Make It or Break It in 1965 on Ball State radio station WBST. He played rock and roll on a station that exclusively aired classical music. Listeners called in to give their thoughts on the songs, and if they didn’t like them, Letterman would literally break the record.
Despite lasting only a few episodes, the program ignited a career that made the Ball State alumnus into one of the most successful media personalities in the country.
Letterman, born in Indianapolis to Harry Joseph and Dorothy Letterman (Dorothy Mengering), graduated from Ball State in 1969.
Since then, he has had a career filled with multiple Emmy Awards, as well as a Peabody Award for his production company. In 2002, TV Guide ranked The Late Show as the seventh-greatest TV show of all time. Letterman himself landed as the 45th greatest TV star of all time, in a separate ranking by the publication.
After Letterman ended his stint at WBST, he moved to a new campus radio station, WAGO AM 570. There, his wry, self-deprecating humor drew audience members to the upstart student organization.
The antics carried over into his first TV job after graduation, when he took a position as a weatherman in Indianapolis. Legends continue today of a time when, on air, he congratulated a tropical storm for upgrading to a hurricane.
He held media jobs in Indianapolis for a few years until he moved to Los Angeles to focus on comedy. He wrote for sitcoms until he got his break by appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson became a mentor to Letterman, inviting the aspiring comedian to guest host the popular late-night show.
Letterman got his own morning talk show in 1980. It was short-lived but gained critics’ favor. The success was enough to convince NBC to give him a show after Carson’s each night, and Late Night with David Letterman was born.
He stayed at NBC until 1993, when he moved to CBS to host The Late Show with David Letterman.
He also began the production company Worldwide Pants that year. On top of The Late Show, the firm produces The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, among other programs. Worldwide Pants’ biggest success was sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.
Letterman retired in May 2015.
Letterman’s influence remains visible around Ball State.
Campus radio station WCRD began in 1986 after he funded construction. The last three letters in the station’s call letters stand for “Cardinal Radio Dave.”
Letterman also created a scholarship that goes to three Ball State telecommunications students every year. The students receive $10,000, $5,000, and $3,333.
One More Gift
His support of the university and its students prompted Ball State to name its newest communication building after him. In September 2007, a crowd of thousands gathered in front of the David Letterman Communications and Media Building as the late-night comedian joined Ball State officials to dedicate the building.
Letterman responded to the recognition with yet another gift. While here, he donated funding, which resulted in a lecture and workshop series attracting business and media leaders as well-known as Ted Koppel, Angela Ahrendts, and Oprah Winfrey. And Letterman himself has joined them a few times.