The Max Headroom Incident
On the evening of November 22nd, 1987, an oddly-dressed man appeared on two Chicago-based TV stations. This man, who was wearing a mask of fictional TV host Max Headroom, seemed to hack into the feed of WGN-TV (Channel 9) and WTTW (Channel 11)… and to this day, investigators aren’t clear who he is or how he managed to hijack the airwaves.
What you are hearing is the opening theme to the Max Headroom show - a creative, obscure television program that ran for a little over a year in the late 1980's.
The character of Max Headroom was created by Rocky Morton - a music video director that would later become infamous for co-directing the disastrous "Super Mario Brothers" film, released in 1993. However, before that happened, he help introduce Max Headroom the world, in a 1985 made-for-TV movie named "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future."
Inside the bizarre cyberpunk-themed, post-apocalyptic, dystopic universe that Max Headroom existed in, he was an artificial intelligence that acted as a TV host, who was often responsible for saving the world with his news broadcasts. The character of Max Headroom had a bizarre appearance - which often required the actor portraying Max, Matt Frewer, to spend several hours on each day of filming to get his hair and makeup done.
The mannerisms of Max Headroom hearken back to early Jim Carrey, with odd, humorous facial ticks and a physical stutter. In addition, his voice was overdubbed with some electric samples, which gave the character of Max Headroom a distinct, distorted-sounding voice.
The character of Max Headroom, who was introduced in a British made-for-TV movie, was later expanded into a full-length TV series, which began airing on ABC in March of 1987. That year, he would become a popular figure throughout America, eventually being chosen to act as a spokesperson for Coca Cola - telling viewers to "Taste the Wave" of New Coke.
These ads were made in Max Headroom's trademark style, which featured an odd sense-of-humor and frenetic editing. Here is one such ad, where Max Headroom is interviewing a can of Coca Cola.
Eventually, the Max Headroom television show would be cancelled in the middle of its second season - early in 1988. That would bring an end to the Coke campaign, and spell the end of Max Headroom's adventures for the time.
However, many think that the show's cancellation was due less to low ratings or any kind of creative difference between producers. Because by the time that the show was cancelled, the character of Max Headroom had made national headlines for the most bizarre of reasons.
This is the story of the Max Headroom Incident.
WGN-TV is a Chicago-based independent TV station, which broadcasts locally on Channel 9. It is one of the only Chicago-based stations located outside of the city's downtown business district, a distinction it has held for decades now.
WGN became nationally syndicated in 1978, with the station's signal being up-linked to satellite at that time. Because of that, WGN became one of America's first three "super stations," joining New York City's WOR-TV and Atlanta's WTBS.
In the mid-1980's, WGN would begin to face some stiff competition in the region, when competing stations began to steal some of its market share. However, WGN has remained a top-ranking network in the Chicago area in the decades since.
On November 22nd, 1987 - a Sunday - WGN-TV was airing its Sunday evening news broadcast: The Nine O'Clock News, now known as WGN News at Nine. As you can guess, it aired at 9:00 PM, and was the station's prime-time news coverage of the week.
Sports anchor Dan Roan was in the middle of showing highlights for the Bears and Lions football game, which had played out earlier that afternoon, when all of a sudden, the station experienced an odd incident.
In the middle of the sports report, viewers were treated to approximately 15 seconds of dead air, before being greeted again. This time, instead of sportscaster Dan Road, they were looking at an individual wearing a weird Max Headroom mask and sunglasses.
As a distracting buzzing noise oscillated back-and-forth in intensity, this strangely-dressed individual acted and moved bizarrely. He bobbed his head intermittently, while the corrugated metal background behind him rotated back-and-forth, clockwise and then counter-clockwise.
After less than 30 seconds, this intermission came to an end, and the station switched back to its normal broadcast. Sports anchor Dan Roan made light of the odd interruption, before shifting back into his coverage.
Engineers at the station had been able to quickly switch the frequency of their broadcast, which cut off the intrusion completely.
In total, the bizarre man who had taken over WGN's broadcast feed had been on-screen for less than 20 seconds. He had said nothing - at least, nothing the feed picked up - but had left viewers of the 9:00 news feeling confused and alienated.
Calls began pouring into the offices of WGN-TV, and staff began working to determine what had happened and how. But later that evening, the airwaves of the Chicago region would again be hijacked by this mysterious individual masquerading as Max Headroom.
WTTW is channel 11 in the Chicago area, and is known as Chicago's primary Public Broadcasting Service. Meaning, of course, that it is a non-for-profit broadcasting entity that broadcasts a variety of free programming - including several programs from the BBC.
On the evening of November 22nd, 1987 - which, again, was a Sunday - WTTW was airing a Doctor Who serial: the four-part "Horror of Fang Rock," which had originally aired in 1977.
Like WGN's 9:00 news, this broadcast was going by without issue, when - suddenly - the broadcast signal for WTTW was interrupted by this strange, mysterious individual. And this time, staff at the station would struggle to overcome the issue, allowing this bizarre hijacker free rein of the network's reach for more than a minute.
It was around 11:15 Central Time - roughly two hours after the hijacking of WGN-TV's feed - that the broadcast of Doctor Who was interrupted. Viewers were greeted to a "blink and you'll miss it" shot of TV static, before the mysterious individual in the Max Headroom mask reappeared. He was still in front of the same disorienting, rotating background, but this time, was allowed to speak. His broadcast not only had video, but audio.
Here's what viewers were greeted to close to midnight on this Sunday evening. The audio is hard to understand, I know, but I'll walk you through it afterwards.
This video contains a lot of chaotic, frenetic movement, and numerous instances of unintelligible audio. The culprit's audio is overdubbed with so much distortion that it makes it hard to differentiate their syllables from one another. I'll do my best to explain it from the top.
The video cuts into the individual dressed as Max Headroom sitting in front of the screen. He almost appears to be in mid-speech, and states:
"That does it. He's a fricking nerd."
This individual then laughs, before saying:
"Yeah, I think I'm better than Chuck Swinsky. Fricking liberal."
Chuck Swinsky was a sports pundit for WGN, who was most well-known for commentating local basketball games. It is unknown why this individual had a hatred for Chuck Swinsky, but... moving on.
This individual then bends over to the side, where they seem to have props waiting for them. They mutter "Oh, Jesus - here we go - yeah" before finding the prop they're looking for: a can of Pepsi. Right before raising up the can of Pepsi they state, "Catch the Wave." Which, if you recall, was the slogan for Coca Cola at the time. Coca Cola was an advertiser of Max Headroom, so this seems to be a bit of on-the-nose satire.
It is also worth pointing out that this individual tosses the can of Pepsi aside, and you can see a phallus-looking object attached to their finger. They eventually toss it to the side, as they sing the opening line from the song "(I Know) I'm Losing You" by the Temptations, which was later covered by Rod Stewart and others.
They then begin humming the theme song to Clutch Cargo, an animated series that ran from 1959 to 1960.
What follows is 20 or so seconds of almost unintelligible noise, with the individual saying something along the lines of - "I still see the X" - as well as something about "my files!"
We then begin to reach the crescendo of the weird interruption, in which the individual on-screen makes a sound of flatulence, before stating:
"Oh, I just made a great masterpiece for the greatest world newspaper nerds!"
This seems to be a direct nod to WGN, whose sister newspaper - the Chicago Tribune - went by the nickname "World's Greatest Newspaper."
This person then begins to hold up a gardening glove and proclaims:
"My brother is wearing the other one."
As they put on the glove, they state:
"But it's dirty! It's like you got bloodstains on it!"
It's then revealed that this whole stunt has been pre-recorded, as the video cuts to the individual dressed as Max Headroom facing away from the camera - his face exposed off-screen. He is holding his mask to the side - in view of the camera - and appears to be bent over with his pants down and his buttocks revealed.
Standing behind him is a masked woman, dressed in an outfit that is equal parts Annie Oakley and French maid. Her face is shielded from the camera, but she is holding a fly swatter. As the man screams "They're coming to get me!" she tells him, "Bend over, bitch."
She spanks him with the flyswatter a handful of times, while he screams "Don't do it, no!" before the feed is finally turned off.
All of this unfolded over the span of one minute and 28 seconds: a chaotic, frenetic reel of footage that viewers of Doctor Who were presented with in the middle of the "Horror of Fang Rock" serial.
But then, just like that - the episode of Doctor Who continued playing, as if nothing had happened. And that, seemed to be that.
Over the following several hours, hundreds of callers reported in to the stations affected - both WGN and WTTW. Shortly thereafter, the FCC was contacted - the Federal Communications Commission - and an investigation into the bizarre hijacking was launched.
FCC spokeswoman Maureen Peratino made it clear that they were taking the incident seriously, and stated that the perpetrator was facing not only a possible fine of $10,000, but up to a year in federal prison (if not both). She also stated that the investigation would be joined by the FBI, who wanted to ensure that this method of hijacking could not be utilized by others - such as domestic terrorists.
WTTW - the station broadcasting the Doctor Who special and the second, 90-second incident - had been unable to stop the hijacker immediately. Their broadcast signal was transmitted from the top of the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago, and on the night in-question, there were no engineers on-duty to prevent the incident.
Anders Yocom, a spokesman for WTTW, stated that the station considered the incident:
"... an illegal override of the station's video and audio signals."
He also stated that technicians with the station had:
"... attempted to take corrective measures but couldn't.
"By the time our people began looking into what was going on, it was over.
"All in all, there are some who may view this as comical. But it is a very serious matter because illegal interference of a broadcast signal is a violation of federal law."
WTTW had no recording of their own of the hijacking, so they had to rely on outsiders to provide evidence of their own. This meant that they called upon Doctor Who fans - who might haven taping the special that evening - to provide footage of this incident to investigators and themselves.
Almost immediately, investigators connected the two bizarre broadcasts - both the 90-second interruption during Doctor Who on WTTW, and the roughly 30-second interruption of WGN-TV's news broadcast.
Staff at WGN were eager to cooperate, as they had been the first affected, and seemed to be the target of the bizarre scheme. After all, even in the second incident, the individual posing as Max Headroom had singled out a WGN sportscaster - Chuck Swinsky - and even mocked the title of "world's greatest newspaper."
The following investigation would leave engineers, analysts, broadcasters, and investigators puzzled.
It appeared that whoever was behind this stunt knew what they were doing: they likely had legitimate experience in broadcast engineering. They also undoubtedly had access to powerful equipment needed to override the signals of both networks, or had created their own impressive microwave equipment.
After all, whoever had done this had figured out how to smother WTTW's signal from atop the Sears Tower - which was more than 1400 feet in the air. Engineers estimated that the cost of being able to do this - of smothering a TV station's signal - would cost thousands of dollars at the very least. More average estimates put the cost of necessary equipment anywhere between $10,000 and $25,000, putting it well beyond the expense of a couple of teenagers in a garage.
It was believed that whoever was responsible had likely transmitted their own signal from the rooftop of an adjacent building. That seemed to be the most likely way to overpower the signal coming from the TV stations. The only other alternative - them broadcasting from a ground-based transmitter - would have required an incredibly powerful transmitter.
Robert Struzel, the chief engineer of WGN-TV, stated:
"You need a significant amount of power to do that. The interfering signal has to be quite strong."
Unfortunately, because the method of this hijacking had been so simple - with the hijackers simply smothering the stations' outgoing signal and replacing it with their own - there was no real way for investigators to track them. It wasn't like they had spliced into a network somewhere and left a mark. They had simply used the airwaves to broadcast their weird videos, knowing where to strike and when.
Investigators began to develop a motive for this unusual crime, which was centered primarily around a perceived grudge against WGN-TV.
The persons responsible had decided to hijack WGN's news coverage earlier that night, during Dan Roan's sports segment. They had decided to overpower WGN-TV's signal for approximately 25 seconds, airing weird footage but no audio.
Then, later that evening, they had targeted WTTW; and in that 90-second interruption, they had made reference to WGN sportscaster Chuck Swinsky, calling him a "fricking liberal" and implying that they were "better" than him.
Later, they had also mocked the title of "world's greatest newspaper" - the once-upon-a-time ago tagline of WGN's sister newspaper, the Chicago Tribune.
To investigators, these seemed to be solid leads - cementing the idea that the Max Headroom hijacker was a local who had a grudge against WGN-TV or their parent company, the Tribune Company (which owned both WGN and the Chicago Tribune). Why they held this grudge, though, was anyone's guess.
It was possible that the responsible party was a former-employee, which would explain not only a motive but potential broadcast expertise. This is a view shared by Rick Klein, a native Chicagoan who is the founder and curator of the Museum Classic Chicago Television.
"It's important to keep in mind that this whole prank was designed for and against WGN."
"Was it a disgruntled former employee of WGN-TV? Or someone who got turned down for a job there? Perhaps an engineer or someone with the technical knowledge and equipment to allow them to pull this off?"
In addition to this perceived grudge against WGN-TV, investigators were intrigued by the character of Max Headroom - the fictional figure that this figure had presented themselves as. He was a heroic artificial intelligence that broadcast news in this bizarre fictional world, which melded cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic dystopia. In the TV show, Headroom waged information wars against evil corporate entities - so it was possible that the individual involved wanted to do something similar against corporations they viewed as "evil" (such as the Tribune Company or, more specifically, WGN-TV).
Needless to say, this possible correlation was not lost on investigators.
Before long, the FCC was joined by the FBI, who began contributing to the investigation. Even though this had seemed to be a harmless prank, it was - after all - a federal offense with significant implications for the future of broadcasting.
Prior hijacking attempts of the airwaves had usually involved people inside TV studios choosing to broadcast their own videos. This, on the other hand, had been an amateur managing to overpower and smother the signal of a TV network. Federal officials were worried that this could lead to criminal organizations or domestic terror groups figuring out the same thing, and orchestrating similar incidents in the near-future.
After failing to learn who the culprit was - or where they had broadcast their signal from - the FBI began focusing on the one piece of evidence they had: the actual recorded broadcast, which held clues of its own.
Unable to determine any features from the man in the Max Headroom mask, analysts began focusing in on his female accomplice, who had been wearing a French maid's costume. If you recall, she had only shown up for the last few seconds, and had been spanking the man with a fly-swatter. That's a sentence I never thought I'd say on the podcast, honestly.
Unable to glean any discernible clues from the woman or her movements, investigators then began focusing on the background of the recording. In particular, there was a large piece of sheet metal that seemed to be rotating back-and-forth.
Dr. Michael Marcus, the assistant bureau chief in the FCC's Field Operations Bureau, served as the lead investigator for the Commission's investigation into this incident. Regarding this background, Dr. Marcus stated:
"The background looked to be about eight-feet wide, industrial type metal, maybe a roll-down warehouse door."
This background helped investigators narrow down the possible locations that the video had been filmed at; which was then paired with tips that investigators had received. One tip in particular pointed to an individual who worked for a company that owned a large warehouse, which may have fit the bill. This individual and his company were in the Chicago region, but investigators were unable to link them to the Max Headroom incident beyond hearsay. They had no evidence - at least, not enough to warrant a full investigation.
Over the years, investigators have struggled to narrow down their search to any one particular suspect. However, one person has remained on the forefront of online discussions regarding the Max Headroom incident, and that is a man named Eric Fournier.
Eric grew up in the Bloomington-region of Indiana, just a few hours south of Chicago. He was known for being brights and charismatic, but having a very strange sense of humor. In the mid-1980's, as Eric was entering adulthood, he began playing with some punk rock bands in the Chicago region, including the bands The Blood Farmers and Skelegore.
Rumors have circulated that when Eric Fournier began playing with the Blood Farmers, he might have been involved in the Max Headroom incident. This claims blossom from the belief that the band had borrowed equipment from a local TV station to record a music video, and planned to play it over the airwaves - a la Max Headroom. However, they knew that playing their own music video would put a target on their backs and incriminate them, so they decided to do something weird with it instead: something truly punk rock and bizarre.
Allegedly, they let Eric take the lead on the whole thing, and he ended up recording the Max Headroom video and orchestrating the hijacking.
These rumors have sprouted up in the years since, because Eric Fournier left the punk rock scene in the mid-1990's, and seemed to move his focus to a fictional character he had created named Shaye Saint John.
When the internet was still in its infancy, a series of videos were published, which showed a female character named Shaye St. John living in Los Angeles. According to this character's backstory, she was a former-model that had been in a horrific car accident, having since lost her arms, legs, and face. She was being subjected to CIA mind control experiments, and the videos were meant to highlight her mental deterioration.
In reality, the bizarre character of Shaye St. John was - for the most part - a mannequin with wooden hands attached to the ends of sticks, which doubled as arms. That is, when Eric Fournier wasn't acting as Shaye himself; as she was always dressed in wigs and dress, in addition to a series of bizarre masks.
These videos began appearing online in the early 2000's, which were paired with a Livejournal blog - which was apparently kept up by the fictional Shaye St. John.
It was a totally bizarre online creation, which began to attract a cult following over the next several years. The Shaye videos attracted thousands of followers on Youtube, and Eric Fournier soon became an underground hero to those with odd senses of humor on the internet.
Many liken the style of the Shaye St. John videos to the Max Headroom incident, as both share the same kind of chaotic humor, often paired with frenetic editing. Eric Fournier seemed to have a sense of humor that was one-of-a-kind, and many think that this sense of humor fit with the overall weird qualities of the Max Headroom incident. He was also bold and/or "punk" enough to see it through.
Many believe that if Fournier wasn't involved in the Max Headroom incident, then he was most likely inspired by it. He would have been 19 years old at the time, and it was a national story that would have attracted his attention in some way.
Unfortunately, we will likely never know the full story of Eric Fournier. He died in February of 2010, at the age of 42. The cause of death was believed to be related to alcoholism, which Fournier had been silently struggling with for years.
For what it's worth, one of Fournier's childhood friends and former band mates, Harry Burgan, discounts the rumors against Eric. He wholly believes that Eric didn't have anything to do with the incident, and has spoken out against this theory in the years since.
"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 broadcast equipment. I think the only time the four of us were ever in Chicago together was to see a Pixies concert at the Riviera.
"Eric would have thought this rumor is hilarious. I just find it bizarre."
The Max Headroom remains one of the most bizarre media mysteries of all-time, and is one of the last major commercial hijackings of the airwaves.
Similar incidents had unfolded in 1985 and 1987, when - at separate times - a disgruntled employee had managed to override the signal of HBO to rail against a price hike, and then an evangelist had jammed the signal of the Playboy Channel with a religious message. Both incidents led to the men responsible being charged and sentenced to fines and probation.
Similar hijackings have unfolded in the 21st century, and led to similar punishments. But none of them went on for nearly as long as the Max Headroom incident, which was allowed to run unimpeded on public airwaves for more than a minute.
A full-scale investigation was unable to determine who was behind this network hack, or what their motive had even been. Other than seeming to have a grudge against WGN-TV, their message had been so bizarre that it was hard for investigators to narrow down a true motivation.
It is believed that those responsible had ties to the broadcasting community in some way; if not legitimate work experience in the Chicago broadcasting sphere. It seemed virtually impossible for an outsider to have the necessary expertise needed to override the broadcast signals. In addition, investigators and analysts believed that the necessary equipment would have cost a pretty penny, and not been accessible by those without knowledge of broadcasting engineering.
To this day, the Max Headroom incident remains one of the most intriguing harmless mysteries, and it is considered funny by many. After all, it seems to be a couple of young individuals that managed to get on TV for a minute or so and made a mockery of network television. Nobody was killed or hurt, but the risk this incident posed - at the time - was considered significant by federal officials, who worried that others could utilize this method to hijack the airwaves.
In the decades since this incident, the Department of Justice has declined to issue any comment about it. It is widely-believed that the person - or persons - responsible are no longer liable for any possible fines or charges - at least, according to the DOJ's cyber-crime manual, which reads:
"In the absence of a specific statute of limitations, the default federal limitations period of five years applies."
So it's possible that the statute of limitations expired back in 1992, but skeptics remain concerned that the responsible parties - if ever publicly identified - could still be charged under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which has been cited in similar cases.
It remains unknown just where the case currently stands against those responsible for the Max Headroom incident, and whether or not they would face any recrimination if they were to come forward more than three decades later.
I'd like to end this episode on a message sent by Bowie Poag, who uses the handle /u/bpoag on Reddit. This case has been discussed at-length on multiple forums there, and Poag became perhaps the most active driver of that. He has contributed significantly to the internet's knowledge of this story, and worked on several leads of his own in an attempt to find answers.
Through several emails, Poag communicated with Vice Motherboard reporter Chris Knittel, and I'd like to share a passage from their communications - which was shared in a Motherboard article a couple of years ago.
"For a few precious seconds, life imitated art for a change. How precious is that? It's a small peek behind the curtain... the public saw a rare and endangered animal, an actual dyed-in-the-wool hacker. Something real, something other than the Hollywood nonsense everyone gets pumped full of. They could decide for themselves whether to laugh with this person's gag, or to be horrified."
This story remains unresolved.
Written, hosted, and produced by Micheal Whelan
Published on January 27th, 2019
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