The Incredibly Weird Story Of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”


“What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” is your Benzedrine, uh-huh
Butterfly decal, rearview mirror, dogging the scene
You smile like the cartoon, tooth for a tooth
You said that irony was the shackles of youth
—REM, “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”

On the night of October 4, 1986, CBS anchorman Dan Rather was on his way back to his apartment when he was stopped on Park Avenue South by two well-dressed men.

One man asked Rather, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

RatherFrequency1986Then Rather was knocked to the ground and repeatedly punched and kicked, as the question was asked over and over again. As the anchorman called out for help, the assailants fled.

Why did this attack happen? Being a reporter, especially as high-profile as Rather, was and is a somewhat dangerous business. He was knee-deep into researching the Iran Contra situation at the time. Perhaps this was a cryptic “warning” ordered by parties unknown?

Rather seemed to be as confused by the incident as anybody. He said at the time:

I got mugged…Who understands these things? I didn’t and I don’t now. I didn’t make a lot of it at the time and don’t now. I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea.

In 1993, the band REM recorded the song “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?,” referencing the Rather attack, for their album Monster. Frontman Michael Stipe explained the inspiration for the song:

It was the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century…It’s a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media-hyped and just plain bizarre.

And things should have ended there—a bit of interesting song origin trivia for a hit of the early 1990s.

But it didn’t end there.

William Tager

In 1994, a North Carolina man named William Tager shot and killed a NBC technician, Campbell Montgomery, outside of The Today Show. When arrested, Tager claimed that NBC had been beaming transmissions into his brain for years, and that the planned attack on the studio itself—which Montgomery prevented with his life—was to stop the transmissions.

And it should have ended there, a schizophrenic off his meds committing a tragic crime.

But it didn’t end there.

Because when the prison psychiatrist interviewed Tager, a bizarre sci-fi story emerged. Tager claimed to be a time-traveller from the year 2265—a convicted felon who was sent on a highly-experimental mission back in time in exchange for his eventual freedom.

The authorities, Tager said, kept tabs on him via a chip implanted in his brain.

And it should have ended there, the story of a terribly mentally-ill man who created a fantasy narrative to explain away a crime and his subsequent internment.

But it didn’t end there.

Because Tager also claimed to have been the man who attacked Dan Rather in 1986—attacking him because he looked like his timeline’s Vice-President, Kenneth Burrows.

When Rather was then shown a picture of Tager, he indeed identified him as the man who assaulted him.

And it should have ended there—an utterly batshit narrative spanning almost a decade concerning a crazed stalker who attacked one of America’s most well-known figures.

But it didn’t end there.

Donald Barthelme

A 2001 Harper’s Weekly article written by Paul Limbert Allman, “The Frequency,” speculated that the attack on rather might have been connected to postmodernist fiction writer Donald Barthelme. Though Barthelme died in 1989, Allman suggested that he might have known Rather professionally earlier their careers (they were both born in 1931 and raised in Houston Texas), and somehow had orchestrated the entire event.

Allman’s possible proof? Barthelme’s writing often featured a recurring character named “Kenneth”…and a rather pompous editor named “Lather.”

And in one story in particular, Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel, is the question: “What is the frequency?”

From “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”

But was the Rather attack a plot by Barthelme for reasons unknown…or did Tager himself read Barthelme and become obsessed with his work (much like Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye seemed to inspire people to do crazy acts)?


…did somebody make Tager read Barthelme—and/or respond to “trigger words” from his works—for reasons unknown?

And who was that second person Rather claimed confronted him on that night in 1986?

At any rate, until we understand these things…the story of “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” cannot be said to be completely over.

One comment

  1. That is bizarre. I knew the song was related to an attack on Dan Rather but didn’t know all the details. Thanks for posting.


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