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How Did A Masked Man Hijack 2 Chicago TV Stations In 1987? Mystery Lingers

By Linze Rice | November 24, 2016 6:41am | Updated on November 25, 2016 8:06am
 A person wearing a Max Headroom mask hacked into WGN and WTTW broadcasts on the same night in 1987 with short, bizarre video clips.
A person wearing a Max Headroom mask hacked into WGN and WTTW broadcasts on the same night in 1987 with short, bizarre video clips.
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CHICAGO — It was a typical Sunday night in November 1987 when the WGN (Channel 9) sportscast was hijacked.

At 9:14 p.m. Nov. 22, someone sporting a Max Headroom mask and wearing a yellow blazer interrupted a taped segment of Bears highlights for about 25 seconds, saying nothing but rocking side-to-side as a metallic background whirred behind. 

"Well if you're wondering what just happened, so am I," sports anchor Dan Roan said when the sports segment resumed.

Two days later, WGN's director of engineering would tell the Tribune an engineer was able to quickly break the signal the pirate had established with the station's receiver on top of the John Hancock Building by changing the frequency of the transmitting signal coming from the station at Bradley Place on the North Side. 

But just two hours after the intrusion on WGN, WTTW (Channel 11) wouldn't be so lucky. 

At 11:15 p.m., its broadcast of a "Dr. Who" episode was interrupted by the same character — this time with bizarre audio, an appearance by another person and longer time on the air. 

During the two-minute video, the person behind the mask made multiple references to WGN and the Max Headroom character (a short-lived show from the 1980s about a futuristic newscaster) and revealed his bare bottom to be spanked by what appeared to be a woman with a fly swatter.

WTTW, which transmits its signals to the top of the Willis Tower from its station at 5400 N. St. Louis Ave. in Albany Park, was unable to stop the video from playing in time. 

Once it was over, the "Dr. Who" episode continued. 

The next day, investigators with the Federal Communications Commission began trying to determine who, how and why the pirate had overtaken local airwaves. 

The general theory was that someone, or more than one person, had set up equipment between the stations and their receivers on top of the downtown buildings and inserted their own signals aimed at the towers instead. 

That's what is believed to have happened, anyway, because the mystery remains unsolved — no one credible has ever come forward to reveal themselves nor been identified. 

According to an article by Chris Knittle for Motherboard in 2013, while the FCC's central office wanted to pursue the case further, agents from Chicago's field office were more reluctant and viewed the video as more of a prank than threat. 

The issue of hijacking TV stations had come up a year before when a man going by Captain Midnight hacked HBO's signals to post a text-only message complaining of the station's recent increase in its prices.

That man was found to be a satellite technician named John MacDougall, and in 1987, Congress made it a felony to jam satellite signals. 

Engineers said in the immediate aftermath they believed it would require a significant amount of energy and high-powered, expensive equipment to pull off the stunt.

In 2013, one of the original FCC investigators from 1987 told Knittle the culprit or culprits didn't necessarily need to have access to full-size satellite dishes or the TV stations themselves, but with equipment bought off the black market or at a discount, combined with some technical knowledge, a small dish and the right position in the city, an amateur could have accomplished the feat. 

From the early days of message boards, to later chat rooms and even in today's Reddit forums, those fascinated with the case have continued to draw theories and investigate on their own. 

In 2015, Bowie Poag, a computer programmer from Chicago, and Rick Klein, curator of the Museum of Classic Chicago Television, alleged they met with engineers and technicians from WGN and WTTW to discuss the incident in detail. 

After those talks, Poag said the pair said they were convinced the chances of the hijacking being a prankster outsider were nil and believed it was probably someone with a connection to the TV industry, in particular WGN. 

The question of whether the Max Headroom incident was performed by a disgruntled ex-employee, former applicant, comedian technician or engineer, or truly an amateur looking for 15 minutes of fame remains as one of the strangest moments in television and Chicago history.

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