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Bizarre Chicago Area Pirate Broadcast Incident Still Unsolved

Updated on August 18, 2013

Imagine This

It is hard to imagine this incident. Take a moment and close your eyes and imagine that it is late on a Sunday night. The weekend is nearly over and you are already mentally preparing for the start of the work week. It is about 9 p.m. in Chicago. Outside, the air is turning cold and it has gotten dark at about 6 p.m. for a few weeks now. Winter is fast approaching, and the Thanksgiving holiday is just days away. There is anticipation for the holidays, but you still have to get ready for work. At 9 p.m. on the popular local television station WGN is when they do the local news broadcast. Perhaps you turn into that broadcast to catch up on the day’s news, sports and weather. Or, maybe, as a sci-fi fan you have turned over the WTTW, the local PBS station, to watch an episode of Doctor Who. Suddenly, just as you are getting into either of those shows the screen goes all snowy and fuzzy. Then, to your amazed eyes, a strange broadcast starts. The audio is distorted and a bizarre scene of a man wearing a rubber mask and making obscene gestures at the camera completely takes over the broadcast for about a minute and a half. Then, just as suddenly, the broadcast ends and you are back watching the news or the sci-fi show.

For viewers of WGN and WTTW on the night of November 22, 1987, this is exactly what happened. For the FCC and those involved in the broadcast industry, it is known as a “broadcast signal intrusion.” For the average viewer, it was a pirate broadcast that overrode the signal for both stations for a time and some pranksters with a twisted and strange sense of humor broadcast their own images for about 90 seconds. It left many puzzled. When the story was later revealed, it provoked both outrage and laughter. It also launched a huge investigation by the FCC and local Chicago police. Finally, it remains unsolved and many still wonder who was behind the Max Headroom Pirate Broadcast of 1987.

Broadcasting In Chicago

Before we can look at this incident, a few things need to be explained. Since this happened in 1987 and just enough things have changed in the world and the city of Chicago to make people wonder what is being discussed. The world of 1987 was very different than it is today, at least as far as broadcasting is concerned. Although cable television was growing in popularity, not everyone in the Chicago area had it yet. Most people still caught the television signals broadcast from towers located downtown using antennas on top of the house or hooked up to the televisions themselves.

Downtown Chicago was a conglomeration of tall buildings, but there were three that dominated the skyline at the time. If you were looking at downtown from the west, facing Lake Michigan, the tall building on the far left, looking like a kind of elongated trapezoid, was the John Hancock Center. Topping the huge building are two gigantic white and red antennas. In the middle was the white tower today known as Aon Center, but then known as the Standard Oil Building. At the far right was the dark, block building that held the title of “Tallest Building in the World” known as the Sears Tower. Atop that building, as well, are two huge white antenna structures.

Most of the major stations that broadcast to the Chicago area had space on the antennas located on top of the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower. Nearly every television and radio station had their broadcast antennas on those huge spires atop both buildings. And, particularly crowded, were the two antennas on top of the Sears Tower. If you had a broadcast facility how could you not want space on top of the antennas that capped the tallest building in the world? It would give you signal coverage to the entire area, plus potential coverage into Indiana and other neighboring areas.

At that time, the local station WGN (which stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper, as it was owned by the Chicago Tribune) and PBS station WTTW shared space on the antennas on top of the Sears Tower. Their respective antennas were actually very close to one another on the structures. WGN, in particular, was a broadcasting powerhouse with both a radio station and one of the most popular television stations in the city.

Remembering Max Headroom

You also need to know who Max Headroom was. In 1987 the idea of computer-generated people being used as television personalities was beginning to catch hold. Max Headroom got his start as a host of a music video show on Channel 4 in Great Britain. Actually, Max was actor Matt Frewer dressed in prosthetics and wearing a plastic suit. The computer-graphic software at that time was not actually able to create a realistic 3D human head that would articulate the way Max was supposed to. So, Frewer would spend hours being made up to look as if he were computer-generated. He would film in front of a blank screen, reading his lines, and then his image would be placed over a hand-drawn background of strange moving lines, and then it would be digitally manipulated to give Max his stutter and strange verbal inflections.

He became a huge hit in Great Britain. He was then made the star of his own television series and brought across the pond to the United States. His show was shown, for a brief time, in the U.S., but he became most famous as a product pitchman for Coca-Cola. He also starred in a popular music video at the time. In 1987 Max Headroom was still popular and ever-present on commercials, television shows, music videos and countless merchandise that bore his likeness.

The Incident

On that night, something happened. Somehow, someone, somewhere in the city was able to completely override the signals of both stations. Doing so would have required equipment that was not sold at the local electronics store and some real brains. Despite being smart enough to put that together and get away with it, the people who overrode the signals that night had not political agenda, it seems. Instead, the bombarded homes with vulgar images, cursing and partial nudity.

It began at WGN. The station appears to have been the intended target of the intrusion from the start, judging by some of the things the intruder said during their 90 second broadcast. The difference between WGN and WTTW was that WGN was broadcasting a live newscast at the time. That meant that there were producers and engineers on site and working when the attempted intrusion happened. Over at WTTW, however, they were broadcasting a pre-recorded show. Their studios were dark, their broadcasting day left to computers and automated systems. Thus, when the intrusion occurred there, it was a much longer process to try to get the signal removed.

The 9 o’clock news broadcast was in full swing on WGN. In fact, it was time for the sports portion of the broadcast. Dan Roan, the sports anchor for the station, was in the middle of doing Chicago Bears football highlights when the strangeness started. Suddenly, the signal turned snowy and static blasted across TVs across the city. Then, the image of a man standing in front of weird moving lines and wearing a suit and a Max Headroom mask suddenly appeared on their televisions. There was no audio, just a horrendous buzzing sound. It lasted just a few seconds and an engineer flipped a switch that changed the frequency of the WGN studio link to a transmitter located at the John Hancock Building.

The newscast immediately came back on, featuring puzzled and confused anchors. Sports anchor Roan looked particularly flustered. He looked into the camera and said, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I.”

The second intrusion actually happened later in the night. WTTW broadcasted old shows of the popular British sci-fi series Doctor Who late at night. The entire process was automated, thus eliminating the need for there to be live people at the transmitter or for engineers to be present when shows were broadcast from the station.

At about 11:15 p.m., something bizarre happened. While watching the Doctor Who episode known as “Horror of Fang Rock” the signal became fuzzy. This time, it seems, the intruders were able to boost their signal. The image was a bit clearer. The audio was fuzzy and accompanied by a horrendous buzzing sound, but many of the words were clear. What happened next was 90 seconds of outright weirdness that many, even fans of the bizarre sci-fi antics of Doctor Who were unable to believe.

The broadcast went something like this:

The screen became fuzzy and full of snow.

The image of a man wearing a brown suit-coat and a rubber Max Headroom mask appeared. Behind him a piece of corrugated metal is waving back and forth, moving up and down in an approximation of the strange moving lines seen behind Max Headroom.

The Max Headroom character speaks in a highly-distorted voice, “He’s a freakin’ nerd!”

“This guy’s better than Chuck Swirsky (another WGN sportscaster). Frickin’ Liberal!”

The man bends over to pick something up from the floor.

“Oh, Jesus!”

Picks up a can of Pepsi and holds it up to the camera.

“Catch the wave!”

Throws the can at the camera.

Stares into the camera and begins to bounce and hum the theme to the cartoon Clutch Cargo. At one point he walks toward the camera wearing some kind of rubber extension on his middle finger, which is holding obscenely at the camera.

“Your love is fading!”

Hums the theme for a few more seconds.

“I stole CBS.”

Says something else unintelligible.

“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece for all of the greatest world newspaper nerds!”

Leans down laughing and making strange noises and comes up with a glove that appears to be a gardening glove.

“My brother has the other one.”

He puts the glove partially on one hand.

“It’s dirty!”

He throws the glove away.

Suddenly there is more static and the scene switches. The Max Headroom mask is now being held in the man’s hand toward the camera. The rubber finger extension is in the masks’ mouth. The head of the person cannot be seen as he is bent over, with his pants down and his bare buttocks facing another person standing behind him. Viewers can only see the torso and one hand of the person behind him, but that person is in some kind of dress and holding a flyswatter. The person with the swatter begins to spank the bare buttocks of the person in the brown suit coat.

“They’re coming to get me!”

The spanking continues for a few seconds as the mask is held before the camera and the person being spanked yells incoherently for a few more seconds.

The screen goes black and then the episode of Doctor Who resumes where it left off.

Fans of the sci-fi show were baffled and confused. Some of them called WTTW. The station, meanwhile was trying to figure out exactly what had happened and who had done it. Angry fans of the television show called the station, flooding the switchboard. Many who were taping the show would not see the bizarre incident until the following day. Of course, interrupting the broadcast of any legal television or radio station is illegal, and is the jurisdiction of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). If the person who had done the intrusion were caught it would have resulted in heavy fines and jail time. Thus, the FCCC was called once the incident happened and one of the largest manhunts in the history of the organization was launched to try and find the intruder.

The Max Headroom Broadcast Intrusion with Subtitles

Investigations and Theories

Several questions were evident. First, why would anyone want to do this? It seemed, judging from the content of the illegal broadcast, that someone had something against WGN. Perhaps it was a disgruntled former employee? Given the technological know-how involved in pulling this off, could it have been a former engineer? The second was, who had done this? Again, the possibilities seemed, at first, as if was quite a narrow pool of people to choose from.

It was theorized that the pirate had overridden the signal for WGN and WTTW using a broadcasting rig at their home or apartment. The signal would have had to have been very strong, bombarding the signal for WTTW as it came off of the antenna located on top of the Sears Tower. To do that would have taken a large amount of equipment. Some felt that a rig capable of doing that could be bought for about $25,000. Others said that a rig capable of doing that could be rented for a few thousand dollars. Still, whatever rig was used, it was not something that could easily be purchased at the corner store. Again, it seemed as if the culprit would be able to be easily tracked down and apprehended.

Another theory was that the person, to be able to do this, had to be relatively close to the Sears Tower. Perhaps an apartment or office building nearly adjacent to the mammoth tower. Again, searches turned up nothing. The pirate had covered his tracks very well, disappearing into the night as mysteriously as he had emerged. Even with the FBI helping with the investigation, no one was found or questioned on the incident.

The reasons why anyone would do this also remain a mystery. No demands were made to WGN or WTTW. No other signal intrusions were done in and around the date of that one time. If the person had a grudge against either station, it would seem that the potential penalties that could have been assessed against him or her outweighed whatever feelings of revenge they might have gotten. The minimum fine for an intrusion like that was $100,000 and a year in prison was likely.

Some have suggested that it was just pranksters, perhaps technology geeks who wanted to see if they could do it just for the sake of doing it. This seems the most likely scenario. Considering events were not repeated, it seems that the pranksters decided that the publicity and potential punishment was too great to attempt doing anymore pranks.

As for the television stations, steps were made to make it so doing such a thing again was much harder. WTTW improved security around their antenna and signal and also set up an redundant signal at another tower so that the broadcast could easily be switched as was done with WGN earlier that night.

As for the prankster or pranksters that night, no one has ever been arrested or charged over the bizarre incident. These days recordings of the pirate broadcast can be found online on sites such as YouTube. As to who pulled off the prank, the FBI and FCC would still like to know, but it remains yet another Chicago mystery.


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