In November 1987, one of the weirdest moments of TV history happened right underneath the noses of the Chicago viewing public.
That night a mysterious figure wearing a full-head "Max Headroom" mask invaded the broadcasts of local Chicago TV stations WGN and WTTW. Initially, on WGN, the masked marauder was only able to cut in for about 30 seconds before the transmission was re-seized by network engineers...but on WTTW, which was airing an innocuous Doctor Who rerun, the signal hijacking would last an entire minute and a half and include a garbled, manic tirade involving Chicago sportscasters, obscure local children's shows, New Coke, and, uh, spanking.
To this day, no one knows who was behind the Max Headroom Incident...but that's where the mystery really begins.
This week, Carrie takes us through the nitty-gritty of late 80s pop culture, broadcasting technology, and Reddit-based speculation, along with the strange stories of two other signal hijackings: the Captain Midnight broadcast signal intrusion and the Southern Television broadcast interruption - the latter of which may possibly have come from a place beyond our galaxy!
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I think of this episode as a bit of a sister to our “Hollywood Horrors” 2-parter way back near the beginning of this podcast. Today, I’ll be covering one of television broadcasting’s most indelible mysteries: the Max Headroom signal hijacking incident.
Now, Sean, the medium of television has always been a bit experimental. First available experimentally in the late 1920s, television broadcasting wouldn’t become really popular in the United States and the UK until after World War 2, when more improved black and white broadcasting became available. Often, Sean, you and I will watch clips of some pretty old shows, including black and white episodes of “You Bet Your Life” and stuff like that. There didn’t used to be the commercials as we know them today; rather a host of the show you were watching or another spokesperson would announce the sponsoring product or brand. Until cable TV really took off following the passing of the Cable Communications Policy Act in 1984, television was a lot closer to its predecessor, the radio, than we would know it today. Originally TV shows were more like filmed radio shows, and they were often fully sponsored by one entity - like with the “Colgate Comedy Hour”, “Texaco Star Theater” and “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports” in the 1950s.
It’s kind of remarkable to see the growth that’s happened in television in its roughly 100 years of existence. And, just like with any other art form, television itself has plenty of true-life mysteries…mysteries possibly enabled in part by the structure very medium they occurred in.
35 years ago this November, one of the strangest mysteries in television history began. On November 22nd, 1987, sportscaster Dan Roan was covering the highlights of the Chicago Bears’ recent victory over the Detroit Lions for Chicago’s WGN Channel 9 “Nine O’Clock News”. In the middle of Roan’s segment, the screen went black for about 15 seconds, and then some truly strange imagery popped up.
Someone wearing a Max Headroom mask and sunglasses came into view, rocking and swaying erratically in front of a rotating corrugated metal panel.
Now, for those who don’t know, Max Headroom was a character who first appeared in the British cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. Headroom was meant to look like an artificially intelligent digital character with a computer-generated appearance, though this kind of uncanny valley look was achieved by an actor wearing prosthetic makeup and under harsh lighting, shot in front of a blue screen with some audio and video effects. The TV movie was aired in 1985, with The Max Headroom Show following in late ‘85 and 1986 and a spinoff of the original film called Max Headroom airing in 1987 and 88. If you’ve seen Back to the Future Part II, you might remember the bit where Marty - in 2015 - goes into the retro-styled Cafe 80s and encounters glitchy digital waiters in the guises of Michael Jackson, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Ronald Reagan taking orders from restaurant patrons. These AI waiters were inspired by the strangeness of Max Headroom, complete with glitches and stuttering. Oh, and, Max Headroom became the spokesman for New Coke, and even shared a commercial with Michael Jordan. Yeah…the 80s were a weird time.
So back to the signal interruption - now, whoever this is, they don’t say anything during this first hijacking, and there’s no music, so I’m not going to play the audio - but you can find it easily on Youtube, like under the title “WGN Channel 9 - The Nine O'Clock News - The 1st Max headroom Incident 1987”. For this episode, I’m going to be heavily referencing the documentary “The Max Headroom Hijacking Incident” by The Bizarre on Youtube, so you are encouraged to check that out too; as well as articles primarily from Vice.
To pull off this kind of hijacking, whoever did this must have set up some kind of portable TV station on top of a roof somewhere in Chicago near the transmitters for WGN, and of course set it up during a time when a lot of people in the city would be tuned into the network for the nightly news. This first attempt was not the success the hijackers must have been hoping for - it only lasted about half a minute until the WGN engineers were able to quickly recover their singal. When the broadcast returned, everyone at WGN seemed quite confused, with Dan Roan chuckling "Well, if you're wondering what's happened, so am I." The telecast went on as normal from there.
However, the hijackers were not deterred.
The same night, WTTW Chicago was airing an episode of Britain’s Doctor Who called “The Horror of Fang Rock”. WTTW was Chicago’s PBS affiliate, so it would often play these sorts of overseas shows. It was after 11pm and nothing was airing live, so the WTTW engineers had already gone home for the evening - unlike at WGN, where they were still on the clock for the nightly news. And that lack of engineers was exactly what the hijackers were looking for to score a longer transmission.
They broke in during the episode, and what transpired was truly some of the weirdest stuff ever on TV. It was the same person wearing the Max Headroom mask and sunglasses in front of the steel background, and well, they seemed to have…some issues. We’re going to play the audio in its entirety now, but if you’d like to see the whole thing - and don’t mind a bit of backside nudity - you can find this 2nd hijacking on Youtube under “Max Headroom 1987 Broadcast Signal Intrusion Incident”. There is a slight bit of spooky background audio, but it’s the clearest audio I can find, so don’t worry about it!:
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVcRWOhXmh4 | 20:08 - 21:50 ]
So yeah, this tangent doesn’t seem to make much sense. There are references to WGN sportscaster and Chicago Bulls announcer Chuck Swirsky, calling him a “frickin’ liberal”; Fake Max says the Coca-Cola slogan “Catch the wave” while throwing a can of Pepsi; sang and hummed bits from either “I Know I’m Losing You” by the Temptations or “Your Love is Fading” by Chicago soul singer Lou Pride, part of the theme song for the obscure 1959 WGN animated series Clutch Cargo, and also mocked WGN with the reference to taking a giant shit for “All the Greatest World Newspaper Nerds” - with WGN’s call letters having stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper. And, um, yeah, at the end there a man does appear to show his naked backside while being spanked with a flyswatter by an unknown female. Right around here, WTTW was - thankfully for them - able to get back their broadcast signal, which was located in the Sears Tower. According to station spokesman Anders Yocom, technicians monitoring the transmission from WTTW headquarters “attempted to take corrective measures, but couldn’t”, with air director Paul Rizzo adding, “as the content got weirder we got increasingly stressed out about our inability to do anything about it.” In the end, the broadcast only ended because the hijackers ended their transmission.
The public was in turns freaked out, not thrilled, and/or outraged. I mean, a guy was getting spanked basically on PBS during an otherwise innocuous episode of Doctor Who. The news, including WGN themselves, reported on the hijacking, but with no additional facts yet in the case. The Chicago Tribune published an article soon after with the cheeky headline: "Powerful Video Prankster c-c-c-could become Max Jailroom”.
An official investigation was launched by the FCC and the FBI, as, at best, the hijackers would nab a sizable fine for having done this. As FCC spokesman Phil Bradford announced the next day, "I would like to inform anybody involved in this kinda thing, that there's a maximum penalty of $100,000, one-year in jail, or both.” Dr Michael Marcus led the investigation for the FCC out of Washington DC, and he theorized that whoever had done the hijacking had been located most likely on a rooftop on the north or northwestern side of downtown Chicago, which would give them proximity to both the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center, where the WGN transmitter was located. The FBI, meanwhile, blew up high res images from the transmissions in hopes of identifying one or both of the people shown. Luckily, at least several people had been recording both stations that night - and likely more for Doctor Who, since it seems like something you’d tape to have for later if you were a big fan of the show. These people donated their VHS recordings to the cause, but to no avail…it was a bit impossible to identify those shown by sight. And unfortunately, the FCC team in Chicago just didn’t really want to expend the resources to investigate deeper, and so the case was put on hold after a lack of leads or evidence.
And so the Max Headroom incident was mostly forgotten…until years later, that is. We’ll discuss theories, suspects and even other signal hijackings…after the break.
Thanks to the internet and advent of video hosting sites like Youtube, a new generation discovered the mystery, while the old generation was able to relive it…and so the question of Who did the Max Headroom signal hijacking? began to be asked again. Some suspects began to be pointed to, especially by the amateur sleuths of Reddit. Some thought that “Max” could’ve been the son of one of the TV station execs due to the equipment required for the signal interruption. Or, perhaps Fake Max had actually been caught but kept quiet due to the TV stations’ request.
One Redditor, BPoag, put forth a rather convincing theory that he had known 2 brothers, who he referred to as J and K, who could have very likely been the ones to carry out the Max Headroom incident. J and K were heavily involved in the computer hacking scene in 1980s Chicago, and during a house party the pair had hosted, BPoag claimed to overhear the brothers talking about something “big” over the weekend. And don’t forget, whether or not Fake Max was being truthful, he did mention having a brother on the WTTW broadcast.
Later, at Pizza Hut, BPoag asked what something “big” had meant, to which they responded, “Just watch channel 11 later tonight.” That night? November 22nd, 1987. He failed to put 2 and 2 together at the time, but later felt that K was the cameraman, K’s girlfriend was the spanker, and J himself was Fake Max on the broadcast. However, after years of investigation with curator Rick Klein of the Museum of Classic Chicago TV, BPoag walked back his accusation and updated that he felt that J and K weren’t the culprits, after all. In fact, BPoag stated in a Reddit update that, “Rick and I have concluded that the possibility of this having been an outside job is basically zero; to make a long story short, all the things which needed to have been possessed by an outside amateur or amateurs, no matter how talented, simply did not exist in the wild in 1987. This, and other information we were never able to corroborate, is what allows us to free J and K as suspects with full confidence.” Klein would continue to follow the investigation, believing Fake Max had ties to the local Chicago broadcast community.
Another theory centered around musician and performance artist Eric Fournier, who created a surreal avant garde webseries named Shaye Saint John, which strikes many as very similar to the erratic style of the Fake Max broadcasts. Theory goes that Fournier, who lived in nearby Bloomington Indiana at the time, originally wanted exposure for his punk band The Blood Farmers’ music videos. But, at the last minute, he decided against broadcasting one of the videos, fearing that they would be identified and easily lead investigators to his door. Instead, he enacted his own “performance”.
However, in speaking with Vice, former bandmate Harry Burgan dismisses this theory. Burgan wrote, "This is ridiculous bullshit, Eric didn't know anything about video editing when we were in high school. We never made music videos apart from someone maybe videotaping one of our shows. We weren't friends with anyone getting degrees in mass communications and had no access to broadcasting equipment. I think the only time the four of us were ever in Chicago together was to see a Pixies concert at the Riviera." Sadly, Fournier died in 2010, so there’s no confirming or denying the rumor on his end.
So who WAS it?
Ben Minotte, founder of Oddity Archive and early Max Headroom Incident researcher, shared some thoughts with The Bizarre. Minotte felt that those behind the hijacking must have been undertaking some sort of purposeful act of rebellion, even though the statements in the broadcast itself were strange and scattershot. The repeated mentions of WGN stand out - from sportscaster Chuck Swirsky to mocking the “World’s Greatest Newspaper” acronym to even the reference to Clutch Cargo, which hadn’t been aired on WGN for at least a decade by the time of the hijacking. Minotte posits that whoever it was had an axe to grind, likely specifically with WGN, and was also a Chicago native, as they could recall old local shows like Clutch Cargo which had been rerun on WGN in the 70s. He additionally felt that if the FCC had discovered solid suspects they would have at least gone after them, and they were determined to not give others any inspiration to undertake similar broadcast intrusions. In my opinion, arresting or fining someone is more of a deterrent than keeping their identity secret - because if you can get away with it and literally never be found, even 35 years later, that’s more of an encouragement to do something like this than not.
Also, just in terms of how this was able to be carried out, I tend to agree with the conclusions of the Bizarre documentary team. While home video cameras were accessible by the public in 1987, home editing capabilities really didn’t exist. I mean, I myself was editing on a shitty VHS desktop computer thing in my school computer lab back in around 2002. Software like Final Cut and Premiere simply didn’t exist back then. There is a cut before the spanking part begins in the 2nd broadcast intrusion, and the way it’s done seems to make it clear that it wasn’t an in-camera cut but rather, something that was pre-done. This means that whoever made the edit must have had access to an editing bay, which would’ve been located at a TV station, a film production company, or public access, maybe. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that would’ve been open to the public - like how some libraries these days have production capabilities to utilize. This seems to cement the idea that whoever did this had production or broadcast experience, and contemporary connections to editing equipment and likely other equipment needed to pull off the signal hijacking.
The Bizarre team also feels that, instead of recording live from a roof, it was likely shot previously in some sort of garage or warehouse where the corrugated metal background could be utilized to resemble Max Headroom’s blue screen background, and then later edited. They also theorize that at least 3 people were involved in the hijacking: Fake Max, the female spanker, and whoever was behind the camera. Perhaps there were more…but it seems, to keep a secret like this for this long, the less people involved, the better. Whoever they were, it seemed they didn’t like WGN for whatever reason - either having been previously or even currently employed by them and unhappy, part of a rival network, or someone who simply had felt wronged by the TV station.
Some of those targeted by the broadcast don’t really understand why. Speaking with Vice, the allegedly “frickin liberal” Chuck Swirsky stated, “I was just baffled, stunned, flabbergasted. I still to this day don’t understand why my name was used. Even though I’m a sportscaster, I keep a very low profile. It’s not like I’m out there pontificating politically. People always say, ‘Hey are you the guy that’s in the Max Headroom…?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ It’s rather strange. I’m just a basketball announcer. I don’t get why they used my name.”
For his part, original FCC investigator Dr Michael Marcus also has some theories. Marcus told Vice in a 2013 interview, "New, the gear might have cost around ten thousand dollars, but would have been available, used, on the amateur radio market. There is surplus equipment sold with this capability. I don't think it needed a few briefcases…It did need a dish antenna, but if they got close to the STL receiver antenna at the TV transmitter, then a Direct-TV-size antenna might have been adequate…In the radio world, a lot of strange things happen. And you can do weird things once, and probably get away with it. If you do it multiple times, there's more of a chance you'll be caught. And we haven't seen this guy for over twenty years."
I don’t know if we’ll ever know the truth of who Fake Max and the other hijackers were. Unless someone comes out like BPoag did and actually has some evidence, or Fake Max or someone from the crew makes some sort of deathbed confession. Maybe they’re still worried about legal trouble or a mass of internet nerds trying to track them down, despite the statute of limitations having long since passed. I don’t blame them though - and so I feel like unless there’s a huge incentive to, no one will cop to it unless no negative repercussions could be guaranteed. However, if you do have any leads, please let us know - or at the very least, get in touch with the aforementioned Rick Klein at his email tip line, MaxTips@fuzzymemories.tv.
The Max Headroom incident was, of course, not the first time a broadcast signal was hijacked.
On Saturday November 26th, 1977, Southern Television in Britain was hijacked during a news report on the clashes between in what was then Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - between security forces and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army. The picture wobbled, a deep buzz sounded, and then the audio was replaced by a distorted voice delivering a message for almost six minutes - much more than the combined approximate 2 minutes of the Max Headroom incident.
The speaker claimed to be Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command- Ashtar being a name associated with extraterrestrial communication since 1952. Here is part of the message, which can be found on Youtube under “Southern Television Broadcast Interruption: United Kingdom Nov 26 1977”
[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VEhgUVTIxrE | 0:37 - 1:18 ]
Vrillon goes on to warn viewers that the Age of Aquarius can be a time of great peace for humanity, but only if the evils in the world are defeated. Weapons of evil must be removed, conflicts must be ended, and false prophets and guides must be avoided. It’s actually a rather true warning and doesn’t seem meant to frighten people…it’s not like it’s not true, right? If we don’t learn together than, eventually, we will end in destruction. They’re not wrong.
The statement ends with: “You know now that we are here, and that there are more beings on and around your Earth than your scientists admit. We are deeply concerned about you and your path towards the light and will do all we can to help you. Have no fear, seek only to know yourselves, and live in harmony with the ways of your planet Earth. We here at the Ashtar Galactic Command thank you for your attention. We are now leaving the planes of your existence. May you be blessed by the supreme love and truth of the cosmos.”
The kind of television transmitter used by Southern was open to this sort of intrusion, and it was discovered that someone had hammed the transmitter from somewhere in North Hampshire by bringing another transmitter close to it. Whoever this was, though, was never discovered. So, who knows…maybe it really was an alien race trying to warn us of our imminent destruction.
Just a year and a half before the Max Headroom incident, on April 27th 1986 - hmm, that’s 36 years ago this very day, Sean, how coincidental - another signal hijacking occurred in America, known as the Captain Midnight broadcast signal intrusion. The satellite signal of Home Box Office - which we know as HBO - was jammed during a showing of the film The Falcon and the Snowman in the early morning hours. A message popped up on the screen in front of the classic image of SMPTE color bars, aka those neon rainbow “no signal” color bars some of our older listeners might remember from the more analog days. In front of the image was the text:
“Good evening HBO / From Captain Midnight / $12.95/Month? / No Way! / [Showtime/Movie Channel Beware!]”
It appeared that the hijacker was protesting HBO’s rates for satellite dish owners, which indeed was $12.95 a month. The message aired for about 4 and a half minutes, then the hijacker relinquished control of the satellite back to the HBO communications center in Happaugue, New York. The FCC and FBI soon began an investigation, and the FCC quickly identified the transmitters and stations equipped with the specific character generator used during the hijacking. I don’t know what this means, but I think it’s something computery. This time, the hijacker was caught: it was John MacDougall, an operations engineer at the Central Florida Teleport Uplink station in Ocala, Florida. After the initial information was identified, MacDougall turned himself in to the authorities, and plea bargained down to a $5000 fine, 1 year unsupervised probation, and a 1 year suspension of his amateur radio license. The jamming received much attention in the U.S., with one executive dubbing the intrusion an act of "video terrorism", and as a consequence of the incident, the United States Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 making satellite hijacking a felony. Under this new anti-satellite jamming law, those hijacking satellite signals were strictly prosecuted - like in the case of Thomas Haynie, a technician employed by the Christian Broadcasting Network who hijacked Playboy TV’s satellite signal to air fanactical text messages telling viewers to repent and find Jesus.
For MacDougall-aka-Captain Midnight’s motive, well - it was a protest. In 1983 MacDougall had opened a satellite dealership in Ocala, which initially turned a great profit, but steeply declined following the scrambling of HBO’s signal in January of 1986. This meant that you couldn’t just access it with a satellite, but rather, would have to now subscribe - at the outrageous rate of $12.95 a month! Because of the quick fall of his once-booming business, MacDougall stated, "I have been watching the great American dream slip from my grasp." I suppose that’s enough to make anyone mad enough to hijack a broadcast, especially after he wrote protest letters to legislators, and spent a large amount of money to raise awareness about wanting to keep the market free from excessive charging of its services - all to no avail. So, after that, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
To jam the signal, he tested it earlier with a short color-bar only intrusion, which wasn’t investigated by HBO as it had occurred during the overnight and probably had been deemed a simple mistake. On April 26th, MacDougall - at his job at Central Florida Teleport - oversaw the satellite uplink of the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure as part of the evening's programming for the pay-per-view network People's Choice, which used Central Florida Teleport's facilities. It was here he had access to the mechanisms needed to undertake the HBO hijacking. MacDougall swung the 30-foot (9.1 m) transmission dish at Central Florida Teleport back into its storage position, which aimed it at the location of Galaxy 1, the satellite that carried HBO. Locating the satellite coordinates was not difficult for MacDougall, as frequencies were widely published in manuals and enthusiast magazines, and so he was able to take over the signal and transmit his message straight onto HBO.
And, interestingly enough, MacDougall was born in Elmhurst, Illinois - a suburb of Chicago. Makes you wonder…
Frighteningly, in the aftermath, it was determined that many satellites could be hijacked by amateurs, including that of the United States Navy and, according to the magazine Mother Jones, “an amateur hobbyist could hijack the satellites that alerted U.S. military forces to Soviet actions, creating confusion for world leaders and placing the world at risk of nuclear destruction.” So, that’s…great. And clearly what made this situation so much more serious to the FCC and FBI than the Max Headroom Incident.
But Fake Max and his cronies are what we remember, because of the great mystery of it all. And the oddity. I mean, it’s a weird-as-hell video! Sean, who do you think the Max Headroom hijackers really were?
*I’ll be doing an Ain’t it Kitschy minisode over on Patreon quite soon digging into the story of another big-headed uncanny valley late 80s icon, Mac Tonight…the short-lived but long-loved McDonalds commercial spokes-character played by genius actor Doug Jones, who you may know now as Billy Butcherson from Hocus Pocus, Abe Sapien from the Hellboy films, and literally anything else that calls for a tall skinny guy to wear a lot of effects makeup. So join up and keep an eye out for that coming soon!
It’s time for Weirdo of the Week!
According to a local media report by StokeonTrentLive, schoolchildren in Newcastle, England are being warned about a man in a clown mask offering them rides in a white van. That’s right - the clown panic of 2016 (and our 42nd episode) is back!
In one incident reported to Staffordshire police, “a child was asked if they wanted a ride while another pupil was on their way to school when they were left 'upset and frightened' by the occupants of a van who were wearing 'clown-like' masks.”
In a letter to parents at St. John Fisher Catholic College, head teacher Garrett Murray wrote, "We have been informed by the police that a number of reports have been received by them regarding a suspicious white van stopping a number of young people in the Wolstanton and wider area. In one report, a young person was asked if they wanted a ride and another report suggests that individuals in the van were wearing clown-like masks which upset and frightened a young person on their way to school. Local police will patrol around the location throughout the day. I am asking learners, parents and carers to be vigilant and to report any concerns to Staffordshire Police on 101 or via the Staffordshire Police website or Facebook page. Any descriptions or identifying markers such as vehicle registration plates would be extremely useful in helping the police with their enquiries.”
Any of our Newcastle listeners - y’know, if we have any - should report any clown van driver sightings to Staffordshire Police on 101 or via their social media channels. Cops say that they'll be adding extra patrols to the area and have asked residents to keep an eye out for the suspicious van in the hopes that someone might be able to spot a license plate on the vehicle.