For 25 seconds in 1987, in the middle of WGN-TV anchor Dan Roan’s sportscast, thousands of Chicagoans’ feeds were replaced with a low analog whine and the eery image of a masked man nodding over and over as if in a state of mania. “If you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I,” Roan said to his audience once WGN regained control of the signal. What he couldn’t have known is that the rest of the world would still be wondering to this day.
9:14pm CST today marks 30 years since one of the most unusual hacks in history: the Max Headroom signal intrusion. One of them wearing a mask of fictional AI TV host and New Coke spokesthing Max Headroom, the pranksters hijacked two stations that November evening—first WGN-TV, and two hours later an even more memorable takeover of WTTW during a broadcast of Dr. Who.
What made the second incident stand out? Besides seizing WTTW’s airwaves for nearly three times as long as WGN-TV’s, the hackers had successfully broadcast audio, and it was creepy enough to match the unnerving visuals.
The heavily distorted signal, repeated moans, and nauseous swaying of the background give the impression that the character is in pain, agonizingly trapped inside the rogue signal. If the effect was to craft something impenetrable and frightening, they mostly succeeded.
Undercutting the terror of a low-bitrate man with a giant head appearing in the TV unannounced are the words themselves, at least the ones that are audible. They’re standard hacker snark: “Catch the wave,” a snarling reference to New Coke; “Yeah, I think I’m better than [WGN sportscaster] Chuck Swirsky”; and another obtuse dig at WGN prescient, “I just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.” (WGN stands for World’s Greatest Newspaper.)
“They’re coming to get me,” he groans before turning around to have an accomplice spank his bare ass for about eight seconds. Then Dr. Who came back on.
At the time, WGN Engineering Director Robert Strutzel said that such a signal intrusion “takes very sophisticated equipment to do this at a significant power level,” which should have made the hackers as simple to find as HBO’s “captain midnight” a few months prior. But FCC and FBI involvement at the time proved fruitless, and civilian theories have had as much success in the intervening years at determining the identity or the motive of the hackers. In that sense, those two minute of inscrutable footage remain a perfect crime.