Rerun: The Max Headroom Signal Hack–The Nerdiest Unsolved Mystery

I first published this at stevehuff.blogspot.com on April 6, 2011. I’m re-posting it here (and deleting the original) with no edits, just a note that after I wrote the following, a friend clued me in that the reddit posts by “bpoag” mentioned at the end of this entry may have been an elaborate troll, so caveat lector.

It was the night of November 22, 1987 and many Chicago residents were watching a sportscast on WGN. Probably, what, eating brats? Snogging a piece of pizza pie like a lover? Perhaps sniffing their mustaches and drinking brewskis, just like Ma used to do?

Whatever sports fans were up to that particular night something hilarious and strange went down on the airwaves of a couple of Chicagoland TV stations, and the mystery of who brought the weird is unsolved to this very day.

It’s my favorite unsolved mystery that doesn’t involve ghosts, missing people, murder or whether the dealer is always the smeller: The Max Headroom Signal Intrusion.

THE HACKS

The first hack hit WGN’s 9 p.m. newscast. During a Bears-heavy segment viewers suddenly saw a guy in an outsized Max Headroom mask, positioned in front of what appeared to be a sheet of corrugated metal. There was no audio track, just an electric buzzing. Some quick-thinking engineer at WGN flipped a switch and the newscast was back to normal. The puzzled newscaster said, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.”

Nearly 2 hours later Chicago public TV station WTTW was airing the Dr. Who episode, “Horror of Fang Rock.” The “Fang Rock” episodes of the long-running BBC sci-fi series were interesting in their own right as they were based on a real-life mystery that occurred in the British Isles at the beginning of the 20th Century. That mystery, however, didn’t involve flyswatter spankings. See, this time the signal hacker went for broke. For some 90-odd seconds hydrocephalic fake Max Headroom performed a skit heavy with soda, rambling nonsense and bare-assed naughtiness.

The pirate signal cut in with a minimum of static and breakup and as the hyper, bobbing masked man rambled the corrugated tin swayed in the background in a seasick imitation of the digital effect that appeared behind Max Headroom on his eponymous TV show. His voice weirdly distorted, Big Head Max said, “That does it. He’s a freakin’ (or frickin’) nerd…Yeah, I’m better than (WGN sports reporter at the time) Chuck Swirsky, freakin’ liberal… Oh Jesus!”

Big Head Max then held up a can of Pepsi and said, “Catch the wave.”

“Catch the wave” was New Coke’s slogan. New Coke, one of the most infamously wrong-headed product revamps in history, was often criticized as tasting just like Pepsi.

Big Head Max continued, “Your love is fading,” then began humming the theme to Clutch Cargo, a 50s TV show. He said, “I stole CBS.” His rambling continued unintelligibly for another few seconds. This was probably just as well, as he hadn’t proven himself an eloquent revolutionary up that point. Big Head Max was understandable again in a moment, moaning, “Oooohhhhh, my files! Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece for all of the greatest world newspaper nerds.”

He held up a large woolen glove and said, “My brother is wearing the other one… (but?) it’s dirty.”

There was a jump cut and Big Head Max was now in one corner of the screen and he appeared to stick his tongue out through the mask. He said, “They’re coming to get me!” and turned away to reveal his white bare butt to the already gobsmacked Chicago Dr. Who fandom.

A second player in this final scene, a costumed woman, began whipping Big Head Max’s alabaster rump with a flyswatter. “Come get me, bitch!” shouted the most audacious broadcast signal hacker in history, “Oh, do it!”

And just like that, Dr. Who was back on the screen. And we future people fond of irrational performance art were perhaps a bit sadder for it (Except for die-hard Whovians, of course).

MAX HEADROOM

Matt Frewer as Max Headroom (Wikimedia)

Matt Frewer as Max Headroom (Wikimedia)

Any effort to understand the Max Headroom Hack needs a little background. Max Headroom was a sci-fi TV series starring Matt Frewer that aired on American television from March, 1987 through May, 1988. The show’s basic premise seemed tailor-made to attract the attention of the kind of folks with both the knowledge and motivation to pull off something like the WGN/WTTW signal hacks. From IMDB:

23 minutes into the future, the world has become imbued network-television. It’s illegal to turn off your tv, and televisions are given to the needy. In this world, Network 23 has a highly-rated news program with a roving reporter named Edison Carter. But Carter gets caught in an experiment to create a computer-generated personality, and “Max Headroom” is born. Together, Max and Edison, along with Edison’s controller (Theora), their boss (Murray), their boss’ boss (Ben Cheviot), and Network 23’s boy-genius (Bryce) combat crime, placate sponsors, defeat rival networks, and turn in stories.

The show was a Spring mid-season replacement and initially made a big splash, especially among critics.

Max Headroom became what we’d call a “viral” star today. He shilled for Coke on billboards and in commercials, even showed up on the cover of Newsweek.

Along with conversation, Max generated controversy. An AP article published in what were apparently some unusually bad news doldrums in August of ’87 spoke of how offensive the character’s “stutter” might be, and how it could provoke children to make fun of kids who stammered. At the time, few people knew anything about computer glitches that can cause digital media to jitter and jump.

From a contemporary article about the hack. (screengrab)

From a contemporary article about the hack. (screengrab)

Stutterers had the last laugh anyway. By mid-October that year Max Headroom was canceled due to low ratings (remaining episodes in the can when the show was canceled were aired off and on through Spring of the following year). Show producer Peter Wagg told the AP it was sad “that any time a producer with a great idea that is slightly different, that is challenging, that is possibly slightly ahead of its time will get turned down, because they’ll say Max didn’t work.”

Just over a month later, Big Head Max aired his weird little spanky show for perplexed Chicagoans.

THE LAWS

As funny as the Max Headroom Signal Intrusion Incident of Spankery and Soda might seem to us today–hell, as funny as it was when it happened–it was a crime. According to Alan Bellows, writing at DamnInteresting.com, the laws of the day “allowed for a maximum penalty of $100,000 and one year in prison for such signal piracy.” That’s why the FCC and the FBI launched an investigation aggressively seeking an unknown cult TV fan (or fans) with an affinity for terrible homemade skits, spanking, soda AND enough technical know-how and income to override the broadcast signal of TV stations in one of the top American markets, a list of qualities that probably looked pretty inelegant on a Most Wanted poster.

They had no luck. The feds concluded the signal was pirated when a more powerful beam overriding WTTW’s uplink signal was pointed at the station’s transmitter, which was atop the 1451-foot Willis Tower (then known as the Sears Tower). Powerful equipment fit for the job could have been purchased for well over $20,000. It also could have been rented for a few thousand bucks, though either way it would have been an awful lot of money to throw away on such an impenetrable and juvenile stunt. As for location, investigators believed the prankster(s) either did the deed from a nearby rooftop or used an exceptionally strong transmitter on the ground.

Tech-minded and curious folks posting to online bulletin boards–essentially early message boards–had a few ideas of their own. In an early online magazine, Tolmes News Service, magazine editor Dr. Hugo P. Tolmes called them “modemers” and quoted posters chatting on a board called “The Slipped Disk”:

87Nov26 1:05 am from Capt. Zap

My thoughts on the jamming of the Chicago stations comes down to one simple thought. It takes no massive amounts of power to jam a signal to any reciever. The ability to trace this type of jamming is going to be very difficult since it was a line of sight interception and over-powering of the signal. Now I have a few ideas that would make such actions possible. Think

about the use of standard microwave ovens with the basic wattage of 300 to 500 watts. Now inject your standard video / audio signal into this giga-bandwidth of space. Wattage + directed targeting at something that is so open and un-protected allows for all sorts of jamming and over-powering with ease.

[A few posters disagreed, one wondered if it was “an inside job.”]

87Nov30 6:02 am from The Chamelion

Hardly an inside job. They just aimed their transmitter at the same transponder that WGN uses, and used a higher power. It diesn’t even have to be significantly higher. Just more, and the WGN signal will cancel out. As I said before, 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.

“The Chamelion” also believed the Max Headroom hacker was one of his own kind: a disgruntled fan of the just-canceled show:

87Nov24 6:18 am from The Chamelion

This morning of ABC’s World News This Morning, there was a story about all the broadcast overrides. We’ve gotten WGN, WWOR, and the superatation out of Kansas, KTAT, I believe. He said “The FCC is looking into how someone could intercept broadcasts”. I’ve studied this for a long time, and believe me, it’s not hard. Especially overriding superstations. They showed a videotape of what was transmitted. It was […] A homemade Max Headroom. It was pretty neat. We’ll strike again. I can guarantee it.

Sadly, for anyone who enjoys real-world eruptions of absurdist comedy, it didn’t happen again. There have been other broadcast intrusions in the years since, but none of any significance over American airwaves.

WHO

It’s been 23 years since the Max Headroom Incident and the chances anyone will be arrested or come forward grow slimmer each day. It’s that rare mystery that in a way, I don’t want to see solved. There was something joyfully anarchic about the effort put into a pointless act and somehow the idea of that person (or those people) going on with their live(s) while hiding that one big, strange secret makes me giggle.

At least one person has said he thinks he knows who did it. Using the screen name bpoag, he posted the following on the influential link aggregator Reddit in early January, 2011: “I believe I know who was behind the “Max Headroom Incident” that occurred on Chicago TV in 1987. A bunch of people have been asking me about this lately, so, I figured i’d do a coredump AM(almost)A.”

Other Redditors picked the poster’s contentions about his suspects apart in their usual thorough way, and he really didn’t seem all that sure he was right in the first place. Still, his amateur profiling of the kinds of personalities that could conceivably be involved in such shenanigans was pretty interesting. His thumbnail sketches of the brothers he felt were capable of such a prank:

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.

The brothers did sound like the sort of team who might conceive of such a stunt, but ultimately bpoag’s story was missing any concrete statement as to why it might have been done or whether “K” and “J” had the wherewithal to do it.

I worked in the broadcast television industry for more than a decade, mostly behind the scenes, in engineering. I was an operations guy, running the machines and doing the clerical work that ensured the right programs and commercials aired at the right times. I got to know many TV engineers and they were, to a man, an odd bunch of dudes. The first time I encountered the video of the Max Headroom incident, I immediately thought of the man who was my supervisor at a public TV station for 4 years. He was a decent guy but quirky in a way that didn’t always seem benign. I didn’t think he was the prankster, of course, but it has occurred to me that whoever pulled off the Max Headroom hack was probably a lot like him: an engineer, with real knowledge of the way the mechanics of broadcasting worked, an in-depth knowledge of signal flow, power levels and the like, but also off-balance and not all there, with a head full of strange ideas he happily pursued the moment he left the station each day. My former supervisor filed patents for all sorts of inventions and frequently sued others whom he felt had stolen his work. He was a soft-spoken man who could hold a perfectly normal conversation then start spinning off into a world of his own, a world that could only be described as mildly delusional. He was basically socially competent, but you didn’t have to work with the guy long to see that he had a thriving little aquifer of insanity underneath his rational engineer’s veneer, and that aquifer could bubble up anytime and inspire him to do brilliant things or even brilliantly crazy things, if the time was right.

The mind behind the Max Headroom Hack was surely a lot like that: sane and rational enough on the surface, technically proficient in the necessary ways, full of bubbling weirdness underneath.

Not long after that last flyswatter slap died away, I’m certain the hacker probably had more than a few co-workers looking at him sideways, maybe even joking, “if anyone could do that, you could.”

I like to imagine the King of Signal Hackers simply smiling as if they were sharing a mildly amusing joke and moving on, quietly humming the theme from Clutch Cargo.

ADDENDUM

The spirit of the Max Headroom Incident lives on today. While hacker collective Anonymous developed independently in the early 2000s, a video they posted addressing Scientologists back in 2008 seemed like a respectful nod to one of their spiritual forefathers, the Max Headroom Signal Intruder.

Big Head Max, the hydrocephalic spanking fan, achieved that which Anons today always seek: flawless victory. He loosed his crazy on the world and scampered away, uncaught.

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