25 years later: Dan Rather's weirdest day turned into a hit song

dan rather.jpg
Dan Rather was attacked in October, 1986 by a man who screamed "Kenneth, what's the frequency?" The assailant was not arrested until 1996. Wikimedia Commons/Special to the Forum
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Twenty-five years ago, Georgia-based alternative rock band R.E.M. had one of its biggest hits (with one of the weirdest titles). "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts on Dec 3, 1994. The song was inspired by CBS anchorman Dan Rather and his run-in with an unusual, seemingly troubled man, who would later be convicted of murder.

It all began on Oct. 4, 1986 when Rather was walking on New York's Park Avenue and was attacked by a man who repeatedly yelled at him "Kenneth, what's the frequency?" Rather suffered minor injuries after he says he was punched and kicked. The attacker was not identified or found. But perhaps what stung the most was that Rather wasn't believed by everyone. Some people thought he was making it up — just another example of Rather's increasingly erratic and unusual behavior — which had also recently included storming off the set one night, leaving CBS affiliates around the nation to deal with 6 minutes of dead air. Following the attack, he was also ridiculed for signing off his broadcasts with "Courage."

"Kenneth, what's the frequency?" became a pop culture buzz phrase and fodder for late-night comedians.

In 1994, R.E.M. released their song, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?", cementing the phrase into pop culture history.


Rather developed a good sense of humor about the attack and the phrase. He even sang along with R.E.M. during a soundcheck of the song as seen on "Late Night with David Letterman."

He also interviewed the band members and posted it on his Facebook page.


Despite the ridicule, it turns out Rather was telling the truth all along. In 1997, the New York Daily News reported Rather's attacker was William Tager, who had recently been sentenced to 12½ to 25-years in prison for killing an NBC technician outside The Today Show studio in 1994. Campbell Theron Montgomery was shot while trying to stop Tager from breaking into the studio. After seeing Tager's photo, Rather said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the person.”

Tager claimed television networks were monitoring him and beaming messages into his head, and he fessed up to assaulting Rather eight years earlier for the same reason. Despite the confession, the statute of limitations on Rather's attack had expired, so Tager would not be punished for that. However, he was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Montgomery and served 14 years at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. He was released in October of 2010.

Related Topics: MUSIC
Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience.
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