On October 4th, 1986, CBS News anchor Dan Rather was attacked on the streets of New York by a man who, as he pummeled Rather, repeatedly shouted, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?!” When a doorman intervened to protect Rather, the man took off running. (Some accounts say that there were actually two men attacking Rather.)
Though he wouldn’t be identified for another 11 years, the attacker’s name was William Tager. Tager believed that the television networks were beaming signals into his brain. In 1994, he killed a stagehand while trying to force his way into NBC studios. In 1997, while Tager was serving a 25-year prison sentence, he was identified as the man who had attacked Rather. Tager was subsequently paroled in 2010.
The same year that Tager was arrested, R.E.M. released a song called What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? Though the song was clearly inspired by the attack on Rather, lead singer Michael Stipe has also said that the song was about an older man trying to understand the younger generation.
The video for What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? was directed by frequent R.E.M. collaborator Peter Care and features the band performing the song. The jacket worn by bassist Mike Mills once belonged to the legendary Gram Parsons.
Rumors that R.E.M. stands for “Rather’s Ear Muffs” were once popular but have been denied by the band. Instead, Michael Stipe selected the name after randomly coming across “Rapid Eye Movement” in the dictionary.