When Max Headroom Hijacked Chicago

Dear reader, are you ready for one last trip down the rabbit hole? It is Sunday night, November 22. The year is 1987. You are in Chicago, watching a Dr. Who episode on Channel 11. Then something very, very, very, very creepy happens.

We have looked at clandestine numbers stations and a mysterious FM station. Now it's time to turn on the television. I won't even try to describe this event. You have to see it for yourself. Here, in all its NSFW weirdness, is the pirate transmission that hijacked the regularly-scheduled Dr. Who episode. Warning: spanking alert!

Okay. What the heck is going on here? Let's start with the pirate broadcast itself. The Max Headroom thing kind of makes sense. In 1987, he was a popular character and audiences would have instantly recognized him. More important, the pirate wanted a disguise, and a Max Headroom mask served the purpose.

The voice has been wildly altered to fit the Max Headroom persona, and probably also to conceal identity. It's sometimes hard to understand what is being said, but I'm not sure it explains much anyway. For your reference, I have added a (possible) transcript below. Along with gibberish, the pirate references a sportscaster named Chuck Swirsky, the 1960's Clutch Cargo cartoon show, and WGN's (World's Greatest Newspaper) call sign. Very puzzling, and I certainly can't explain the spanking, let alone spanking with a flyswatter.

The intent seems to be weirdness, for the sake of being weird. Certainly, there is no obvious message, political or otherwise. Interestingly, although the program seems very spontaneous, the video edit at 1:25 shows that the program had been recorded on video tape.

Also, interestingly, WGN-TV was also briefly hacked by the same Max Headroom earlier in the evening, with video but no audio, but technicians quickly regained control. It seems that WGN was the primary target, and WTTW was the back-up plan. WTTW was obviously unable to stop the pirate.

The really interesting thing is this: Hijacking a TV station from the outside is no easy matter. Not only do you have to block the original broadcast signal, you need to insert a television signal of your own. This involves interrupting the station's microwave uplink to its transmission tower (for example, on the Sears Tower) and uplinking a pirate signal instead. Not an easy task, and one requiring technical know-how and some very high-tech equipment.

Of course, the big question is, who is wearing the Max Headroom mask? The FCC and the FBI take an extremely dim view of any broadcast-related hi-jinks. After this intrusion, they vowed to find the perpetrator and indeed assured the public that the perp would be found. A disgruntled station employee? Some kid with a warped sense of humor and access to a microwave uplink? We might never know. The question of the hijacker's identity or purpose remains unresolved to this day. I now return you to your regularly scheduled program.

The transcript of the Max Headroom incident:

  • 0:09 "That does it! He's a frickin' nerd!"
  • 0:12 "I think I'm better than Chuck Swirsky. Frickin' Liberal!"
  • 0:18 "Oh Jesus"
  • 0:20 (Crying)
  • 0:24 "Here we go."
  • 0:28 "Catch the wave." (Slogan from an ad campaign for Coca-Cola featuring Max Headroom.)
  • 0:37 "Your love is fading!"
  • 0:44 Theme song from Clutch Cargo.
  • 0:50 "I still see the X." (A reference to the last episode of Clutch Cargo.)
  • 0:57 "My piles!"
  • 1:04 "Oh, i just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds!" (WGN's call letters stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper.")
  • 1:14 "My brother is wearing the other one, but it's dirty!"
  • 1:20 "I'm going to put my signoff."
  • 1:24 "Oh no they are coming to get me!"
  • 1:27 "Bend over b*tch!"
  • 1:29 (Screaming)
  • 1:33 "Don't do it! No!"

itsratso's picture

luckily when i was a kid in chicago, me and my dad never missed an episode of dr who. and we didn't miss this one either. i still remember it all these years later.

John_Werner's picture

The Max Headroom incident, as far as I know, is the only time in the US where a TV station signal was successfully hi-jacked without the perpetrator ever getting caught. It is not, however, the only time US broadcasts were hacked. The mystique remains a bona fide classic, if a bit naughty. As such, it was celebrated by more than those who condemned it. I understand the interrupted Dr. Who episode was re-broadcast for the fans of the show. Kind of makes one believe the perpetrator had that rare talent for never talking after a few belts at the local watering hole. One would have thought after the statute of limitations was past someone would have come forward,? Yet it remains a mystery and has gained a level of pop-culture notoriety only no admission can extend way past that classic fifteen minute thing, I enjoyed Ken revisiting a relatively harmless hack of electronic history.