Nearly two years ago I published an article, which I chose as one of my all time favorites of 2013, about a bizarre incident that occurred in the Chicago area in November 1987. While an episode of Dr. Who was airing on the Chicago station WTTW, an unidentified person hijacked the broadcast signal and sent out a strange video image of someone wearing a mask resembling 1980s pop icon Max Headroom. After clowning for the camera for a minute or so–and exposing his bare butt to another unidentified person who smacked it with a flyswatter–the pirate shut off his/her transmitter and the signal returned to WTTW. You can see the video of the incident above. This “broadcast signal intrusion” has never been solved, and people who’ve investigated it say it must have required some hefty equipment and a pretty good knowledge of electronics to pull it off.
Not long ago a reader of this blog alerted me to a topic that was posted on Reddit, written in 2013, in which a person claimed to know who the “Max Headroom” pirate was. The Reddit thread is here, and it’s worth a thorough read even though it’s quite lengthy. Essentially, this user, who was 13 in 1987, claims he knew two brothers, “J” and “K,” who were active in the hacking/phreaking scene in Chicago. Here’s how he described the brothers:
One of these get-togethers was in an apartment in a town called LaGrange, a suburb of Chicago, in the winter of 1987. K lived in an a shared apartment with his girlfriend, along with a roommate (also a fellow hacker) who we’ll refer to as M. K and his girlfriend lived in one half of the apartment, and M lived in the other half. J lived with his parents, and never moved out…Anyway, the two rooms of this apartment were separated by a clothesline strung in a doorway, and a large rug hung over it–Practically every square inch with the exception of one corner was packed with systems working and some apparently non-working.
K was a quiet guy. Even though he lived in this apartment with his girlfriend, he often took care of his older brother J who still lived at home. The degree of J’s autism was such that I doubt he could ever hold down a job, even a part time job.
Although the audio of the clip at the top of this article is much clearer, the video isn’t so good. Here is another version of the same clip, with much better video although the audio is bad–subtitles are provided.
On the day in question–November 22, 1987–the Redditor described the scene thusly:
J was at the party in the apartment that afternoon. I didn’t talk with him directly…but I did overhear what the others were talking about. They were referring to J planning to do something “big” over the weekend. I remember that word, “big”, because it piqued my curiosity as to what might be considered “big” by their standards. I later asked them collectively during the dinner we all had at Pizza Hut later that night what they were talking about earlier, what “big” was, and someone (probably K) told me to “Just watch Channel 11 later tonight.” …As sort of an offhanded suggestion. I did happen to be watching Channel 11 later that night, having forgotten about the whole “big” conversation earlier that day. I saw [the Headroom hack], but I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the time.
The person on Reddit refused to name J and K, or provide any other information by which they could be recognized, believing that they valued their privacy (and also, there could still be the possibility of criminal charges as a result of the incident if they were known). A tech site called Motherboard used these Reddit claims as the basis for its own lengthy article on the incident, which is also worth reading. The whole thing is incredibly interesting, and if you find the Headroom incident as strange and fascinating as I do, you’ll definitely want to read these pieces in full.
As the Motherboard article points out, some still have their doubts whether the J/K scenario is true. I have no idea, but it’s definitely interesting to think about. Could the greatest broadcast hijack mystery in U.S. history really be “solved”? We may never know.
Now, if we can figure out who “Vrillon” was, we might really have something!
Chicago, IL, USA
The unsolved Max Headroom Incident – pirates hijack Chicago TV broadcast to air bizarre and creepy tirade (1987)
// January 6th, 2014 // Bizarre
Before the advent of the Internet and widespread public knowledge of a coordinated “hacking” culture, a strange and eerie incident occurred during a November 22, 1987 broadcast on WTTW-11 Chicago (a PBS affiliate) of Dr. Who, when a still-as-yet unidentified hacker took over the station’s broadcast replacing a brief section of the evening’s program with a creepy montage of a masked Max Headroom figure spouting bizarre, and often unintelligible, statements at the camera. Even more baffling, the perpetrators, who would have had to not only possess expert knowledge of broadcast technology but also have access to sophisticated and expensive television broadcast equipment, appeared to be youngsters. To date, how the perpetrators hijacked the television station’s broadcast is unknown and the culprit(s) have never been found or identified. All that remains is an inexplicable video recording of the event and an intriguing mystery that has left Windy City residents puzzled for more than two decades.
The WGN-TV broadcast intrusion
Although the WTTW-11 incident garnered the most media attention, it was actually the second TV hijacking event that night. Two hours prior to the WTTW signal intrusion, Chicago’s WGN-TV (channel 9) newscast was interrupted by the same intruder at 9:00 PM during the sports report segment of the nightly Nine O’Clock News. There was no audio present in the unexpected interruption – other than an odd buzzing noise in the background – when the Chicago Bulls highlights were temporarily replaced with a Max Headroom figure (an iconic 1987-era computer generated character) standing before a bizarre, twisting background meant to mimic the animated “noise lines” in the popular Max Headroom shorts. WGN engineers were able to quickly thwart the attack by changing the studio-to-transmitter frequency that was used to transmit the broadcast signal from WGN’s studio at 2501 W. Bradly Plaza to the transmitter located atop the John Hancock Center. The incident left the interrupted sports broadcaster Dan Roan puzzled, who told viewers after programming control was returned to the station, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.” Little did the Windy City residents know at the time, the strangeness of the evening had just begun.
Below is a taped recording of the first broadcast interruption as it happened. The first event lasted less than 30 seconds.
WGN Chicago Max Headroom broadcast interruption
The creepy WTTW broadcast intrusion event
Approximately two hours later, PBS member station WTTW (channel 11) was broadcasting the Doctor Who series Horror of Fang Rock when another inexplicable broadcast interruption occurred – this time with audio attached. At 11:15 PM, viewers’ screens danced for a moment and a bizarre video of a man dressed as Max Headroom appeared while a high-pitched voice interrupted the broadcast kicking off two minutes of puzzling dialogue that left Chicago citizens, and authorities, scratching their heads. As the TV picture stabilized, a nasally voice stated pointedly:
“That does it. He’s a freakin’ nerd.”
The video hijacking incident occurred early in the Doctor Who broadcast. The television picture twitched and flickered as the hyperactive living-room intruder, standing in front of what appeared to be a swaying sheet of corrugated metal, began to spout various random and inexplicable statements, including quoting New Coke’s advertising slogan “Catch the Wave” while holding a Pepsi can (Max Headroom was a Coca-Cola spokesperson at the time). The bizarre figure then tossed the Pepsi can out of frame and while wearing a rubber extension over his middle finger and giggling in a falsetto-pitched voice, “shot the bird” to viewers. Bewildered television junkies watched as the man retrieved the discarded Pepsi can, saying “Your love is fading,” before removing the rubber extension from his finger and humming the theme song to the cartoon Clutch Cargo, screamed, “I still see the X!” (a reference to the final episode of the Clutch Cargo cartoon series).
Television viewers stared in awe as the unusual intruder began moaning painfully, crying “My files!” (or possibly “my piles” in a reference to hemorrhoids) before a flatulence sound was heard and the potentially drug-addled intruder informed horrified viewers that he had just “made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds” (the WGN call letters used by the Chicago television station are an abbreviation for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”). He then pulled a glove from off-screen, held it up to the camera, and said, “My brother is wearing the other one,” before slipping the glove onto his hand while commenting curiously that it was “dirty”.
The picture then cut over to a shot of the man’s lower torso (the sudden cut-over revealing to investigators that the video was pre-recorded and not a live-feed). His buttocks were exposed and holding the now-removed mask up to the camera (with the rubber extension now dangling from the mouth of the mask), he howled, “They’re coming to get me!” An unidentified accomplice, presumed to be a teenager or woman wearing a dress, said “bend over, bitch” and spanked the man methodically, almost comically, with a flyswatter. The transmission then blacked out for a few seconds before resuming to the regularly-scheduled Doctor Who programming.
After the 90-second hijacking of Chicago’s largest television station signal concluded, the phone lines of both television stations lit up with horrified viewers demanding to know what they had just witnessed.
The following day WTTW authorities told reporters they had been unable to cut the link to the transmitter located atop the Sears Tower (stories circulated that they had no technicians on location at the transmission tower atop the Sears Tower or at their broadcast center at 5400 N. St. Louis Avenue). Authorities of course, only revealed vague details of the attack.
“By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over.”
Luckily, loyal Doctor Who fans retained VHS taped copies of the incident which were provided to the television station and authorities. A taped recording of the creepy interruption (with captioning) can be viewed below.
WTTW Max Headroom incident
FCC and FBI investigation fails
The Federal Communications Commission and the FBI quickly jumped into action vowing to track down and arrest the unruly perpetrators before they could continue their attack on the rest of the nation’s airwaves (seriously, at the time an incident such as this had only been witnessed, briefly, one other time and authorities feared something bigger was coming). As they theorized, the unruly pirates would have clearly had a knack for television broadcasting technology and were almost certainly located in downtown Chicago, near WGN’s satellite link and WTTW’s land-based microwave links – and they would have possessed a serious bankroll as the equipment required to conduct the attack was estimated to have cost in excess of $25K (in 1987 dollars). Alas, after an exhaustive but unsuccessful investigation, the task forces were shut down.
Sketchy details emerge
A few days after the signal was hijacked, a potential clue appeared on an underground BBS chat board when a forum user explained how the television signal had been taken over. On November 30, 1987, a user known only as “The Chameleon”, provided an explanation which included details that many thought only the perpetrators would have had knowledge of:
“Hardly an inside job. They just aimed their transmitter at the same transponder that WGN uses and used a higher power. It doesn’t even have to be significantly higher, just more, and the WGN signal will cancel out. It’s one of those things that doesn’t work out on paper – but it works. Welcome to Earth – where everything you know is wrong.”
Over the decades, puzzled amateur investigators refused to give up on the case. In late 2010, an unidentified Chicago resident posted the following long (but interesting) story on a public forum, proposing that he knew the identities of the Max Headroom Incident (the official name given by investigators) culprits. The poster, who was an active member of the underground BBS culture at the time of the incident, recalled two unusual “characters” that he felt were the hackers who gained control of the television station’s signal. Refusing to reveal their true identities, he described the mens’ bizarre behavior he had witnessed at the time.
“I believe I know who was behind the “Max Headroom Incident” that occurred on Chicago TV in 1987. What I know about all of it in a nutshell:
When I was in my early teens, a number of my friends were into the local phreaking/hacking scene. (This was suburban Chicago, from about 1985 until 1993 or so.) They were much older than me (high school and college age), but they put up with me as sort of a novelty I guess. They liked the fact I looked up to them as quasi-role models, at least.
In any event, I spent countless hours/nights over the ensuing years hanging out with them on local BBS’es and dial-up chat systems, and the occasional in-person get together. Most of them were just casual acquaintances. In most cases, I only knew them by their handle, but a few I knew by name. Two of the people I knew were brothers.
This is the point in the story where you folks aren’t going to be happy with me. I still remember what their full names are, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to share them publically. There are a couple reasons, ones that I think most fair-minded people would agree with.
First, there’s the obvious. The FCC may still want to have a little talk with at least one of the two brothers, who we’ll call “J”, the one who I believe was behind it. Secondly, the person who I believe did it, J, has moderate to severe autism, and, at least at the time, was being cared for by his brother, who we’ll call “K”. I don’t want to disrupt their lives. Thirdly, I don’t have complete proof. Only a heap of circumstantial evidence although I’ve tried recently to contact them to ask them privately with no luck.
Anyway, back to our charming childhood story. I know people should be inherently skeptical here, so, I’ll do my best to provide you with as much in the line of details as I can remember. I hope it’s enough to show that I’m not making anything up here.
People who were into the hacking scene back then were basically the same type of people who are into the hacking scene now…Guys who live in their parent’s basements, charming/brilliant guys who don’t think to bathe often, and often lacking in social skills pretty much across the board. They hang out at Denny’s until they’re asked to leave, they can quote Monty Python sketches from memory, and sleep with JRR Tolkien books under their beds where other guys stash porn. Despite the lack of good grooming and social skills, there was the occasional party every so often, or at least a get together at somebody’s place.
One of these get-togethers was in an apartment in a town called LaGrange, a suburb of Chicago, in the winter of 1987. K lived in an a shared apartment with his girlfriend, along with a roommate (also a fellow hacker) who we’ll refer to as M. K and his girlfriend lived in one half of the apartment, and M lived in the other half. J lived with his parents, and never moved out. I believe J and K were originally from Downers Grove, or Darien. Anyway, the two rooms of this apartment were separated by a clothesline strung in a doorway, and a large rug hung over it. Practically every square inch with the exception of one corner was packed with systems working and some apparently non-working. I remember how the apartment looked in detail because it was the first time I had ever seen an 80 column screen. 🙂 It was hot as hell in there, too. Anyway, the apartment was located in a rather run-down looking apartment high-rise, maybe 4-5 stories tall, located within walking distance of a Pizza Hut. (We all walked over and did lunch/dinner there that day.)
K was a quiet guy. Even though he lived in this apartment with his girlfriend, he often took care of his older brother J who still lived at home. The degree of J’s autism was such that I doubt he could ever hold down a job, even a part time job.
J, despite having fairly severe autism, and coming off as basically…crazy, was actually kind of funny. His sense of humor was sort of disturbing, sort of sexually deviant in nature. He wasn’t very personable, but he was funny.. The sort of person that you would feel kind of uncomfortable sitting next to as a kid, but he would grow on you after a while, and you would accept him as one of the group after realizing that his mannerisms were odd but basically harmless. No eye contact, ever, but the dirty jokes were funny, at least to me as a 13 year old at the time.
(Although it’s circumstantial, this is the first bit of evidence I have. The Max Headroom video features a guy who at one point holds up what appears to be a vibrator or dildo, and tosses it out of frame. The end of the video shows a woman dressed up like Annie Oakley swatting someone’s bare ass with a flyswatter. This is the sort of humor that J loved. All of his jokes, constantly, involved something childish and/or sexually deviant. The video, for all intents and purposes, is a perfect reflection of J’s sense of humor. Scattered, nervous, and comically sexually deviant.)
J was at the party in the apartment that afternoon. I didn’t talk with him directly (me, and the friend of mine that I was there with didn’t really talk to anybody that day), but I did overhear what the others were talking about. They were referring to J planning to do something “big” over the weekend. I remember that word, “big”, because it piqued my curiosity as to what might be considered “big” by their standards. I later asked them collectively during the dinner we all had at Pizza Hut later that night what they were talking about earlier, what “big” was, and someone (probably K) told me to “Just watch Channel 11 later tonight.” As sort of an offhanded suggestion, I did happen to be watching Channel 11 later that night, having forgotten about the whole “big” conversation earlier that day. I saw it, but I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the time.
(A funny side note here, thinking back to that dinner — One of the guys mentioned earlier, M, decided he was going to play a prank on the Pizza Hut staff for poor service. He got up on a chair, put a half-eaten slice of pizza on a plate on top of one of the wooden beam rafters in the restaurant. No one would have found it presumably until it began to rot.)
J didn’t really talk to people directly. His brother K sort of talked for him, but not like an interpreter.. More like a person there to rephrase or elaborate on what J was talking about, to clear up what he was saying… To speak with him, not for him. J was much older than his brother. I remember having a hard time trying to place his age, because he dressed very unusually and had very thick, very tinted corrective lenses. In retrospect, I’d say he was probably in his late 20’s to early 30’s at the time. Again, it was hard to tell.
At the end of the night, my friend and I ended up getting a ride home from J. He drove a small beat up car with a lot of army instructional manuals inside of it… The sort of plain black-text-on-off-yellow-cardstock given to soldiers that cover all sorts of topics you learn in the military. I thought it was kind of awkward that the two of us sitting in the back seat said nothing to J during the ride home, so I tried to strike up some conversation with him. He never answered any of my questions. He had his own topics he wanted to talk about. Paraphrasing:
Me: “Hey J****? How old are you, anyway?”
J: “Oh. Do you know why I told you not to sit in the front seat?”
Me: Uh… Why?
J: “Oooh, In case you said something stupid!”
Me: “What do you mean?”
J: “There’s a surprise under the seat for people who say something stupid! Oooh, or if YOU say something stupid!”
J: “What TV shows do you watch?”
Me: “I don’t really watch TV.”
J: “Hey, I’m hungry. Ooooh, I hope you don’t say something stuuupid.”
…What i’m trying to illustrate here is that J often jumped around randomly back and forth to different subjects when he talked. He never really kept a clear line of conversation. This brings us to the next bit or two of circumstantial evidence. If you watch the video, the person behind the mask jumps around in exactly the same way as J. The problem is, I never spoke with J for anything other than that ride home, but the way he spoke was in line with the type of verbal mannerisms of the guy in the mask. Where most people would say “um” in conversation, J said “Oh” in various lengths. “Oooooh” if he struggled to find something to say.
On the ride home we talked about what he did for a hobby. He was very proud of a radio he recently acquired, a police radio that he had hacked to cover practically everything “from whale farts to gamma rays.”, he said, which was about the only piece of non-sexual comedy I heard come out of his mouth that afternoon. That’s the fourth bit of circumstantial evidence. J knew a great deal about not just the broadcast spectrum, but the electronics that underpinned that sort of stuff. By definition, J was a broadcast hacker.
(As another side note, I learned later from a mutual friend that J had a canister of nerve gas under the passenger seat of his car—He swore it was true, and had seen it himself. It was something J thought was funny, like a conversation piece/something to scare people. That was his personality. He could never really connect with anyone in a friend-like way. He liked to scare people, basically, and work from there.)
Here’s where my recollection of J begins to fade. I don’t recall under what circumstance I remember first hearing about this part, but I do remember hearing that J loved reading newspapers. It was one of his peculiarities, and maybe part of his autism. Specifically, it had to do with him hanging out at convenience stores early in the morning to be there when the paper(s) were dropped off. That’s what sealed it for me. That recollection, and the fact that the guy in the mask on the video mentions newspapers repeatedly.
It’s a minor point, but Clutch Cargo would have also been contemporaneous to J’s childhood. Clutch Cargo was an early 60’s cartoon. Only someone born in the 1950’s would have been able to sing the theme song. If J was about 30 at the time (1987), then this would make sense.
That’s about all I know. To me, the man behind the mask seems for all intents and purposes to be J. The “brother” mentioned in the video is his brother, K. The woman with the flyswatter is likely K’s girlfriend, whom I may or may not have ever met. I don’t think I did that day.
(For the record, it’s speculation, but I don’t think that’s J’s butt getting hit with the flyswatter. I think it was K’s. I can’t see J allowing anyone to see him partially naked, let alone being hit with a flyswatter—only joking about it.)
That’s pretty much all I know.”
A follow-up discussion occurred on the forum thread and a second user, who also claimed to have also known the before-mentioned “J” and “K” hackers, confirmed the original poster’s statements.
“It’s about as true as it’s going to get. I also knew the players, albeit marginally. Was at the apartment that was mentioned, maybe two-three times. In 1987, I was 16, and DDial/BBS were coming to a slow close. These guys were part of the local BBS/DDial scene which is how I knew them. I was kind of interested in their roomie as a potential hookup and drove to the apartment a time or two to hang out. I remember seeing heavy duty AV equipment there, but I had no idea what it was used for and no one was interested in enlightening me.
After the broadcast was broken into, word was going around the DDial scene about who did it. Fingers were being pointed at the guys living in the apartment. Of course it was all deny, deny, deny because of the deep shit they got themselves into, and no one ratted anyone out (see: Doc Ripco).
Doubtful that there is ever going to be solid proof to satisfy anyone as to the real identity of those who did the deed.”
Then, a few months later, a bit more information emerged which hinted that the identify of the Max Headroom pirates may never be divulged. The original poster explained that both “J” and “K” had been located but were refusing to respond to questions.
“After 20+ years, I managed to locate both J, and his brother K, both via Facebook as well as by email. My emails were not returned, and my Friend requests have either declined or ignored. This seems a little odd. It could be nothing, or it could be they don’t want to talk about it.
From what I was able to cull from J’s rather scant public bio, J is actually holding down a job these days. Without providing too many specifics, his career choice and hobbies are still in line with what I guessed. 20 years later, J is still into both broadcasting and hacking.
K has 147 Facebook friends. J, on the other hand, has only 41. They both still live in the area (Chicagoland)”
Case remains unsolved
The two Chicago broadcast intrusion events were the earliest known cases of broadcast signal intrusion using a video feed. Amidst a cacophony of theories and unsuccessful amateur investigations (the official FCC investigation into the incident shut down a long time ago), the identity of the hackers remains unknown to this day and nobody has come forward to claim responsibility for the incident.
Below as a complete transcript (as much as possible) of the event. Some audio from the recording has never been deciphered.
“That does it… He’s a freakin’ nerd. (Hee-hee-hee)”
“Yeah, I think I’m better than Chuck Swirsky. Frickin’ Liberal…”
(Laughs and moans.)
(Laughs and shows a can of Pepsi.)
“Catch the wave?”
(Throws can of Pepsi forward.)
(More laughs and moans. Picks up what appears to be some sort of marital aid, brings it toward the camera, and drops it. Picks up can of Pepsi again.)
Sings “Your love is fading…”
(Drops can again. More distorted laughs by “Max.” He then mimics the opening theme song to the “Clutch Cargo” cartoon show.)
“I still see the X.”
(More mimicking of the “Clutch Cargo” theme song.)
“Ohhhhh-hooo… My files…”
(More laughs and moans)
“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece for all the Greatest World Newspaper nerds.”
(More laughs and moans. He picks up an old, dirty, over-sized glove.)
“My brother is wearing the other one.”
(Puts on glove on his left hand.)
“But it’s dirty.”
(Pulls off glove, throws it forward)
“Looks like it’s got blood prints on it!”
(The scene then cuts away to “Max” leaning to his right with his pants pulled down, exposing his left buttock. Instead of wearing the Max Headroom mask, he is now holding it at his side facing the camera, with a marital aid protruding from the mask’s mouth. A girl whose face cannot be seen, stands behind him holding a wire flyswatter.)
“They’re coming to get me!”
The person holding the flyswatter then comments: “Bend over, bitch.”
(The girl pretends to spank the top of his rear end with the flyswatter while he moans and screams.)
“Oh, do it!”
(More screams from “Max.”)”
Screen cuts to black and programming is returned to the station.
Hacker BBS news report – December 20, 1987
Issue Number: 15-Part I
Release Date: December 20, 1987
Here’s a summary of what happened:
1) On Channel 9 (WGN) in Chicago, the 9 o’clock news was interrupted during the sports section.
2) For about half a minute, a character in a Max Headroom mask came on the screen (with a moving background too).
3) Channel 9 (WGN) cancelled out the signal after about half a minute.
4) About 2 hours later, on Channel 11 (PBS) in Chicago, the Max Headroom TV pirate came on again. This time Max Headroom did a little skit where he would drink a can of Pepsi and throw it away and other antics. Toward the end of the skit, the man with the Max Headroom mask dropped his pants, mooned the screen, and was spanked with a fly swatter. The entire episode took place while the science-fiction series Dr. Who was being broadcasted. The skit lasted for about a minute and a half. The pirate stopped the broadcast on his own (Channel 11 didn’t knock it off the air). Since Channel 11 is public, it didn’t really have the power to knock the broadcast off.. so Max Headroom might have been on for half an hour if he wanted to be. Some words were heard but most of it was blurred. This TV pirate used an extremely powerful transmitter (and very expensive too) to knock out the other signals.
Chicago Tribune news article – November 24, 1987
TITLE: Powerful Video Prankster c-c-c-could become Max Jailroom
DATE: November 24, 1987
By John Camper
An off-colored imitator of the television character Max Headroom showed up on Chicago area TV screens Sunday night, evidently the work of a sophisticated video pirate with an unsophisticated sense of humor. Officials of the Federal Communications Commission were not amused as they searched Monday for clues to the identity of the pirate, who somehow managed to override the signals of two television stations in two hours. The bizarre 1 1/2-minute skit, which ended with “Max” pulling down his pants and getting paddled with a fly swatter, interrupted a WTTW-TW (Channel 11) broadcast of the British science fiction series “Dr. Who” at 11:10 p.m.
Two hours earlier, the “Max” character made an unauthorized 28-second appearance in the middle of a newscast on WGN-TV (Channel 9) but was zapped by an alert engineer before the imposter could do anything offensive. Television engineers speculated that the stations had been victimized by a practical joker with an expensive transmitter. They said it would take extremely high-powered equipment to squeeze out the microwave signals that carry the programs from the stations’ Northwest Side studios to downtown skyscrapers, where they are retransmitted to television sets throughout the Chicago area.
“You need a significant amount of power to do that,” said Robert Strutzel, WGN’s director of engineering, who was reluctant to discuss the prank in detail for fear of providing a “how to” guide for others. “The interfering signal has to be quite strong.” “This guy had to have quite a rig,” said Larry Inman, chief engineer of an Urbana station, WILL-TV. “Transmitters with that much power cost $400,000 to $600,000.”
Strutzel speculated that the pirate operated from somewhere on the city’s North or Northwest Sides, between the two studios and their downtown transmitters. WGN has studios at 2501 W. Bradly Pl. and transmits from the top of the John Hancock Center. WTTW’s studios are at 5400 N. St. Louis Ave. and its transmitter is atop the Sears Tower.
The first interruption occurred at 9:14 p.m. during videotaped highlights of the Chicago Bears game on WGN’s newscast. A character wearing a Max Headroom mask gyrated for almost half a minute but did not make audible sounds. Strutzel said an engineer quickly changed the frequency of the signal that was transmitting the news show to the Hancock building, thus breaking the lock established by the video pirate. Sports reporter Dan Rohn apologized for the interference and continued the sports report.
Two hours later, a “Dr. Who” episode called “Horror of Fang Rock” on Channel 11 was interrupted by wobbling black and white lines. Then the character in the “Max Headroom” mask appeared and swayed back and forth while saying a number of barely audible words. Among the words that could be heard were “Chuck Swirsky” (the name of a WGN sportscaster), “TV studio,” “great newspaper” and “but it’s dirty.” “Max” picked up a can of Pepsi-Cola (the real Max Headroom advertises Coca-Cola) and threw it away. He then got a glove. “Max” bent over, exposed his bare buttocks and was paddled several times by a fly swatter that appeared to be wielded by a woman standing off camera.
“By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over,” said Anders Yocum, vice president for corporate communications at Channel 11. “Initially, we checked our internal video sources before thinking about something from outside. “We’ve spent most of today figuring out what we can do to prevent this sort of thing in the future, and we believe we will be able to avoid it,” he said. Channel 9 officials said they, too, were studying ways to improve security over their broadcast signal.
The legitimate Max Headroom, a wisecracking, stuttering, computer-generated character, originated on British television in 1985. His own American prime time television show, carried on ABC, was cancelled earlier this year. The original story line for the Max character involved a futuristic world dominated by television, where video piracy- such as what occurred Sunday night -was punishable by death.
Chicago Sun-Times news article – November 24, 1987
TITLE: 2 Channels Interrupted to the Max
DATE: November 24, 1987
By Don Hayner
Federal Communications Commission officials are seeking to unmask a phony Max Headroom.
A video pirate disguised as the high-tech television character illegally invaded TV airwaves Sunday night to interrupt briefly programming at WGN-Channel 9 and WTTW-Channel 11. At the end of the 1-minute-28-second interruption of “Dr. Who” on Channel 11, the Headroom character appeared to have his pants down while being spanked by a fly swatter or spatula.
FCC officials are seeking the person behind the Headroom mask. If caught, that person and any others involved could face up to $100,000 in fines and a year in jail, said FCC spokeswoman Christine Jelinek. Additional federal obscenity charges could also be brought by the U.S. attorney’s office,The ABC “Max Headroom” series has been cancelled. The first interruption came during the Bears highlights on the 9 p.m. newscast of Channel 9. The intruding broadcast, which appeared only in the Chicago area, showed the Headroom character rocking back and forth with hands held in the air. It played for 25 seconds until WGN workers changed transmission paths.
That same 25 seconds apparently aired on Channel 11 and continued for about a minute longer. “It was not broadcast quality,” said Anders Yocom, WTTW vice president of corporate communications, and the character “was uttering words and phrases almost impossible to understand.” Yocom said changes have been made at the stations that are designed to frustrate interruptions. “It was exactly the same video shown on both stations, but on Channel 9 it ended after about 25 seconds,” said Bill Baxman, 38, of Des Plaines, who was watching each channel when interruptions occurred. Baxman said the Headroom character appeared in front of a “zigzaggy background of stripes… I was watching ‘Dr. Who’ when all of a sudden it came on again.
“I thought it was, you know, a little cute for the time, but when you think about it, it’s not that cute…. They could be interrupting something extremely important.” FCC spokesman Jelinek said much of the sound on the recordings of the incidents is incoherent. Jelinek explained that the FCC uses monitoring equipment to trace such illegal broadcasts, but it generally requires an interruption of several minutes. The monitoring, however, is done only randomly.
“It’s pretty apparent it was local,” said Robert Strutzel, WGN director of engineering. Strutzel explained that the intrusions could have come from a high-rise apartment or a roof between the WGN transmitter on the Northwest Side at 2501 W. Bradley and its antenna atop the Hancock Building. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s done by somebody in his basement,” Strutzel said. “It’s sophisticated microwave equipment at pretty high power levels to overcome our installation. And the room for error is very small.” Commercial-grade equipment of this sort would cost around $25,000 and could be carried in a few suitcases, he said.
Channel 5 News (NBC, Chicago) transcript
CM= Carol Marin (anchorwoman)
BS= Bob Strutzel (WGN director of engineering)
CM: The FCC is trying to track down a television video pirate who raided two stations last night. First hit: WGN. It’s signal was jammed during the news in the middle of the Bears highlights. The pirate mimicked the Max Headroom character that you see on TV.
BS: It takes some pretty significant equipment, technical equipment, and some knowledge of broadcast frequencies, microwave frequencies, and a lot of power.
CM: Less than two hours later, Channel 11’s broadcast of Dr. Who was disrupted. The 90-second interruption ended with the video pirate’s bare bottom being spanked with a fly swatter. But his penalty will be far worse if he is caught. The maximum penalty is one year in jail and a fine.
Channel 2 News (CBS, Chicago) news transcript
AN= The CBS Announcer
MH= Mike Hirsch (a reporter at CBS who was assigned to cover the incident)
BS= Bob Strutzel (WGN director of engineering)
PB= Phillip Bradford (a representative from the FCC)
AN: And federal investigators.. uhh.. another one is on tonight. This time for the video pirates who managed to scramble Chicago airwaves. The pirates interrupted WGN and WTTW programming with a show of their own. Our Mike Hirsch has more.
MH: Channel 11’s Dr. Who was unexpectedly knocked off the TV screen last night by a broadcast pirate who was disguised as Max Headroom. The wacky and at times perverse TV surprise came shortly after 11 o’clock, lasting about a minute and a half. The same thing happened at WGN’s 9 o’clock news broadcast earlier in the evening.
BS: If someone wants to get into your house, they can find a way to do that. And likewise, if someone wants to interfere with your signal, they can find a way to do that.
MH: The FCC says the pirates were able to use stronger microwave signals to override the television signals which are transmitted from Sears towers.
PB: We’d like to inform anyone who was involved in this sort of thing that there’s a maximum penalty of a hundred thousand dollars, 1 year in jail, or both.
MH: The broadcast pirate who broke into HBO programming about at year and a half ago and threatened HBO with this message was caught by the FCC and fined $5,000 and put on one year probation. The FCC says the wiseguys who pulled off this latest stunt are in really big trouble. Mike Hirsch, THE 10 o’clock News.
AN: The FCC says, or warns, that should the pirates try it again, they will only make it easier for the FCC to track them down.
Sources: WGN, Reddit, Wikipedia, YouTube, Mental Floss, Chicago Radio and Media, Damned Interesting, Museum of Classic Chicago Television, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times