Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Day the Airwaves Were Taken Over

Public broadcasts over the airwaves began, at least in America, through RCA in 1939. For the next 48 years, everything worked the way it should, the way it was expected. What came over the airwaves was meant to come over the airwaves. But all that changed in 1987, when, for a few minutes on one crisp, November evening, television screens in Chicago were taken over by an unknown, masked man who declared, among other things, that “I stole CBS.” It wasn’t the first attempted takeover of airwaves in America, but it was the most successful.

It all started on the evening of November 22, 1987, during a broadcast of WGN-TV News Network. Dan Roan, the sports anchor for the station, was going over the day’s highlight reel of football games. Suddenly, the monitors at the station, as well as the picture on the thousands of television sets tuned into the broadcast, began to flicker and wave. Dan Roan was gone, and in his place was suddenly a man wearing a rubber mask of TV character Max Headroom, a character that was only a head and shoulders against a computer generated backdrop, who spoke chaotically, with pitches going up and down, or getting stuck on a single word that repeated. The masked man stood in front of swaying, metal background; his presence odd and disturbing and he simply looked on, dancing slightly, as if staring right through the screen to the viewer at home. There was no audio, only a low buzzing noise. Then, just as quickly, he was gone. WGN-TV’s technicians retrieved the pirated transmission by quickly switching transmitters. The picture reverted back to Dan Roan, who was visibly flustered.

“Well, if you’re wondering what happened… so am I,” he simply replied.

But the night was just beginning for Chicago residents left scratching their heads.

Exactly two hours after the initial pirating incident, Chicago’s PBS affiliate, WTTW, was broadcasting an episode of the British TV series, Doctor Who. At 11:15 pm, the image of Doctor Who began to dance, then fuzzed out. Suddenly, the Max Headroom-masked man was back, standing once again in front of a gyrating, metal backdrop. This time, he spoke. His voice was highly distorted and his words were random, if not direct. He said, among other things:

“He’s a freaky nerd!”
“Your love is fading.”
“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds.” (This was a reference to WGN-TV. WGN stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper.)
“They’re coming to get me!”

He also hummed the theme song to Clutch Cargo, a TV series from 1959. WTTW had no technicians on site that night, and were helpless to stop the pirated broadcast. It ended after 90 seconds, just after the masked man dropped his pants and was spanked by an unseen assistant. What follows is video from the WTTW broadcast. (The pirating begins at :31):

The FCC and the FBI quickly launched separate investigations into the incident. They concluded that since WTTW antenna was 1,454 feet above the ground, atop the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago, the pirater somehow overran the initial signal by sending out a stronger one, most likely beamed from another rooftop. However, no evidence could be found and there was nothing that could be done to find the masked man.

His identity and motives remain a mystery to this day, nearly 25 years later. His choice of Max Headroom as a mask is curious: The TV show that Max Headroom came from was set in a desolate future, where television corporations controlled everything, and those fighting against the evil regime sent out their messages via pirated television signals.

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