It comes 'round but once a year. At the end of November, we gather with loved ones and reminisce about a simpler time. There may be some controversy over this celebration, but most of us still love it for what it represents. That's right, I'm talking about the anniversary of the Max Headroom signal intrusion incident.
On November 22, 1987, would-be hackers interrupted Chicago's WGN evening news broadcast for nearly half a minute, but their message was cut short by the network. Their later hijacking of WTTW's late night broadcast of Doctor Who reruns was shown to Chicago viewers in its entirety. The perpetrators succeeded in putting out a more powerful signal than the one put out by the networks, a difficult but not impossible task in those analog days.
The individual who appeared onscreen wore a mask depicting “Max Headroom,” a satirical late-night host from a sci-fi TV show who became a kind of cult figure in the '80s. Max, the officially licensed one that is, even showed up on Letterman once.
Our masked bandit of the airwaves proceeded to make cryptic and borderline unintelligible pronouncements referencing pop culture and Chicago broadcasting while someone in the background rotated a corrugated metal sheet back and forth to imitate Max Headroom's signature digital backdrop. After a little over a minute of rambling, the broadcast cut to our host getting spanked with a fly swatter by someone off-camera, in tastefully safe-for-work fashion, I might add. Words really fail to do it justice.
To this day, the perpetrators have never been brought to justice, if we can call it that. The $100,000 fine and year in prison they would have incurred are well past the statute of limitations, so our hackers would face no ill consequences for coming forward all these years later. That being said, I hope we never find out who did this. Their anonymity, coupled with the slightly disturbing inscrutability of the whole thing really add to its mystique. Ben Brock Johnson put it well in this 2019 radio presentation for WBUR Boston on the subject:
“But it is possible that the legend of the Max Headroom signal intrusion is more important, and more powerful, without an unmasking. Maybe it's more useful as a reminder to hackers that culture jamming is possible.”
I like to imagine some kooky ne'er do wells back in the Reagan years deciding to shock the delicate sensibilities of the good people of Chicago with their technical know-how and weird sense of humor and getting away with it, but we'll never really know for sure. What could be more “hacker,” dare I say it, more cyberpunk than that?
So a happy belated Max Headroom signal intrusion day to you and yours. May we never know the identities of its dastardly perpetrators.