When CBS news anchor Dan Rather was assaulted in 1986 by an unknown assailant yelling, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” not one but two songs were born. First, there was 1987 track, “Kenneth, What’s the Frequency,” off of Game Theory’s Lolita Nation — which came a year after the attack. Then, there’s the better-known R.E.M. song, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” off 1994’s Monster, which is getting a reissue Friday.
At the time that both songs were written, the facts of the situation were murky. According to the New York Times, it all became clear in 1994 when William Tager was arrested for fatally shooting a NBC stagehand outside Rockefeller Center; he also confessed to attacking Rather (but it wasn’t officially investigated since the five-year statute of limitations had expired). Ten years later, New York District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau wrote an opinion piece in the Times stating that “the defendant suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had long believed that the television networks were bugging his home in North Carolina.”
Scott Miller of Game Theory was the first musician to get inspiration from the staunchly anti-media Tager. He was a huge fan of pop culture, according to Lolita Nation producer Mitch Easter, and dug deep to study references into his music — like James Joyce with a guitar. “His lyrics are delightful if you want to pick out all the stuff that’s in them,” Easter tells Rolling Stone.
Miller, who died in 2013, found the Rather story charming in its bizarreness, according to Easter. “I think we just created the whole thing in my studio and made it sound like he was on the street,” Easter explains. “He just wanted to refer to it. That was the idea. Monster came out a bit later and they had a song [with a similar name] and it was like, ‘That’s weird.’ I don’t know if they were aware of the Game Theory thing; they probably weren’t.”
In a 2002 interview Miller reflected on the similar song titles: “To tell the truth, I would be flattered and not even the tiniest bit irked if they somehow unconsciously got the idea from my record, but I think Michael Stipe probably wrote the lyric, and I think Pete Buck was the only R.E.M. member who knew Game Theory at all, so it probably doesn’t quite add up that it was a direct influence.”
Coincidentally, Easter also worked with R.E.M. on their early albums. Although he wasn’t present when their song was written, the band was intrigued by the incident as well. Their track seems in-line with Tager’s way of thinking, as the protagonist is disgusted by youth culture and media, with Stipe singing about getting “tunnel vision from the outsider’s screen.” (The band and Monster producer Scott Litt declined an interview about this topic.)
Dan Rather, for his part, took everything in stride. In 1995, he performed the song with R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden, a clip that premiered on Letterman, according to Salon.
As for Tager? He was sent to Sing Sing in 1996 on charges of manslaughter, among other offenses, and was released in 2010, according to the New York Department of Corrections. It is unclear if he ever found out what, exactly, the frequency is.