This episode originally aired on November 22, 2019.
TL;DL (Too Long; Didn’t Listen)
On November 22, 1987, two TV stations in Chicago had their broadcast signals hijacked by someone wearing a Max Headroom mask. In the years since, Redditors have played an integral role in getting to the bottom of this case. Who dunnit? Why? How? We dig into the story.
Thanks to u/gregorburns for this week's artwork. It's called "The Max Headroom Incident." You can find more of his work HERE .
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Amory, do you remember the year 1987?
Amory Sivertson: No. No Ben, I do not. I was not alive.
Amory: You win in the contest of who is older, congratulations.
Ben: Thank you very much. So we need to get a feel for the year 1987.
Amory: Yeah. Specifically the night of November 22nd, 1987 in Chicago. Where, during primetime television hours, something truly weird happened. A mysterious occurrence that’s never been explained.
Ben: If you were in Chicago and flipping through TV channels in 1987, you would find a range of stuff.
(a montage of TV commercials plays)
On Superior Court ... and then he started to unzip my jeans… Nutritious foods like Campbell’s Soup can help keep your resistance up.
Amory: Fear mongering from Court TV, and Cambpell’s soup!
Ben: Maybe some of those loveable hella-creepy claymation California raisins!
(raisin commercial plays)
Raisin commercial: Oooh I heard it through the grapevine!
Amory: Specifically, on the night of Sunday November 22nd, 1987, a one-season show called Buck James, the doctor who wears scrubs and cowboy boots.
Buck James: “I don’t give a damn about politics is what I don’t give a damn about.” Dennis Weaver is Buck James, Sunday on ABC.
(Ben recites the commercial at the same time)
Ben: Dennis Weaver is Buck James, Sunday on ABC
Amory: Over on PBS you had some serious masterpiece theater nerdery happening. Gotta love that public media baby.
(PBS horns play)
Ben: But if you were one of the thousands of Chicago residents watching WGN Channel 9’s 9 O’Clock News, you were about to hear and see something really unusual.
Amory: It happened during the sportscast. The announcer was talking about the Chicago Bears game.
WGN Announcer: Then they scored again at the Lion’s 31. Wayne Larabie called it like this on WGN radio…
Ben: Everything’s going along normally, and then right in the middle of the announcer’s description of the game, while the football newsreel played…
WGN Announcer: Then the defense, which hadn’t put up a sack in 12 quarters finally di---
Amory: The screen goes black, for a long time.
(weird distorted sounds play)
Ben: There’s this weird, twisted scene that pops up on the television. It’s someone in a mask, an oversized head with sunglasses, square chin, white teeth, blond slicked back hair. This person is wearing a suit and tie. And behind them there’s a corrugated piece of metal? Maybe? Twirling in this hypnotic way.
Amory: The character jerks and shudders and seems to laugh. And then the scene cuts out again and the screen goes black. When the sportscaster comes back on, he is bewildered.
WGN Announcer: Well if you’re wondering what’s happened, so am I. Actually the computer that we have running our news from time to time took off and went wild. So what we’re going to do is start over from the top with the Bears and tell you once again about the 30-10 victory they had…
Ben: It was not a computer glitch. It was a hostile takeover. Something called a broadcast signal intrusion. In this case people hijacked the airwaves of a major American television station. And it wasn’t over.
Amory: That was just the first of two signal intrusions that night, 32 years ago to the day, that we are publishing this episode. It was weird. It was bold. Federal investigators were called. There were news reports. It was a fiasco. And it still has never been solved.
Ben: And spoiler, this is not one we have solved either, yet. No one has. And because it’s this intersection of hacker culture, subversive art, technology, and real life, this story still resonates with people even after three decades.
Amory: Also, maybe you can help us find some answers. Maybe.
Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson
Amory: I’m Amory Sivertson
Ben: And you’re listening to Endless Thread, the show featuring stories found in the vast ecosystem of online communities called Reddit.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR station. Today’s episode…
Ben and Amory: To the Max...
The Max Headroom Intro: The Max Headroom-m-m story. So! Sit back. Relax. And Enjoy.
Amory: So this thing that happened — this broadcast intrusion — it really happened twice. And the second time, two hours later, a little after 11p.m., it was even weirder.
Ben: Which, appropriate, because it happens during the BBC science fiction show, Dr. Who. Right in the middle of the PBS affiliate station WTTW’s broadcast of the episode, “Horror of Fang Rock.”
(a clip from "Horror of Fang Rock" plays)
Amory: And it starts out the same way. The screen switches to someone in a strange mask, lunging at the camera while a piece of corrugated metal spins behind them.
Ben: But then the person in the mask, starts talking. And heads up, they’re almost impossible to understand.
Hacker in the mask: That does it. He’s a frickin’ nerd. That’s right, I think I’m better than Chuck Swirsky. Frickin’ liberal.
Amory: People who have studied this video for hours say that the first part of this bit says, among other things, “That does it. He’s a frickin’ nerd. That’s right, I think I’m better than Chuck Swirsky, frickin’ liberal.”
Ben: Is he a frickin’ liberal?
Chuck Swirsky: Well, I mean, that that depends on who you talk to, I mean...
Ben: Meet Chuck Swirsky. The one person whose name was yelled out by the masked people hijacking television broadcasts in Chicago on November 22nd, 1987.
Amory: Today, Chuck is the play-by-play radio announcer for the Chicago Bulls. Back in 1987, his job was also in sports.
Chuck: Well I was sports director at WGN Radio in Chicago, doing college basketball for DePaul University, the Cubs Radio Network, Bears Radio Network, Northwestern Football. You know, in the city, obviously, the sports passion is very, very strong.
Amory: Do you remember anything else about that day?
Chuck: I can't even tell you, in all candor, what the weather was like November 22nd, 1987. I'm sure, because it's Chicago, it was cold and it either snowed or it was gray and it was, you know, maybe sleet like we're experiencing now. I thought it was just a normal Sunday, a normal Bears Sunday until about nine to ten o'clock. And then my world rocked big time.
Ben: Chuck says he doesn’t usually take his work home with him. So, as an employee of WGN, he wasn’t watching his company’s TV station when, during the nine o’clock news, the broadcast was hijacked.
Chuck: And then all of a sudden I started getting calls. Like, a lot of calls. I mean, a ridiculous amount of calls: “Hey, did you just hear..." or "Did you see?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, what about Max Headroom?”
“Well, I mean, he mentioned you!”
I said, “What’d he say?”
“He said you were a freakin' liberal.”
I went, “What!? Come on.” I thought it was a practical joke!
Ben: The person who was taking over the TV broadcast was wearing a Max Headroom mask. Amory, you remember Max Headroom, yeah?
Amory: Still not born yet, Ben. But at the time, Chuck didn't know him all that well either.
Chuck: I really didn't understand this whole Max Headroom phenomenon. I mean, I really couldn't relate to him. I had no connection.
Ben: So Max Headroom was this fictional character described by his creators as an artificial intelligence. He was played by a real person in a ton of makeup to make him look sort of computer generated. And he also sounded computer generated. His voice would like pitch shift and stutter randomly.
Max Headroom: This is M-M-Max Headroom.
Amory: He looked like a news program talking head, that floated in this computer generated cube. And Max was a satire. Created to poke fun at the stereotypical cocky, western, white male newscaster. Here’s tech writer and editor Alex Pasternack on the super-meta plot that was created around Max Headroom the character.
Alex Pasternack: Basically, Max was a journalist working at a television station owned by a large corporation. And he had discovered some dark secret about the corporation and was in the process of reporting on it for his employer, owned by this corporation, when he is assassinated. And his brain is preserved by his hacker friend. The brain is uploaded to the network. And Max Headroom became this digital character who would drop into television broadcasts.
(Max Headroom plays)
Max Headroom: This is the M-M-M-M-Max Headroom Show and I am — cocky swagger — Max Headroom. And it’s great to have you all back with me again. I’m sorry, there’s a guy who keeps moving around over there. Alright alright well I wish he’d just damn well keep still! I’m tryna do a show here!
Ben: In his original inception in 1984, Max was pretty alternative. His character was that of a hacked-together, robotic artificial intelligence that existed to subvert the mainstream. Alex Pasternack says both Max and the incident itself connected to the rise of hacker culture.
Alex Pasternak: Hackers were starting to gain notoriety as as criminals. They were being prosecuted by the government. But they'd also been born in this world of hobbyists and pranksters. And Max, I think, embodied the hacker who's a protester. And who has a certain agenda and is fighting a good cause. That’s part of what makes this whole thing even more cyberpunk when the signal intrusion has happened.
Amory: Without getting too deep into Max Headroom’s origins, this was a bizarre example of life imitating art — a hacker dropping into a real TV broadcast, posing as a character, who was a fictional hacker himself.
Ben: Max Headroom was also this character that imagined and made fun of a dystopian future where corrupt mega corporations used computers to replace journalists.
Amory: It really is time for me to look for a new job.
Ben: Well, that was over 30 years ago and it still hasn’t happened, Amory, so I think we’re safe for now. Point is, this weird, stuttering, virtual newscaster poked fun at newscasters and normies.
Amory: And no offense to Chuck or other sportscasters here, Chuck was, and maybe is, a bit of a normie?
Chuck: There wasn't anyone in the circle of friends of mine that said, “Hey, Max Headroom!” And so when this occurred, it completely caught me off guard. I was shocked.
Amory: Did you ever fear for your safety?
Chuck: Honestly, I did. I had a couple of friends tell me, you know, Swirsk, that's my nickname, you know, you better seek protection. Whoever did this had to be pretty smart and sharp to do what he did. But why he signaled [sic] out me, I have no idea.
Ben: Whether or not "Swirsk" understood the point of Max Headroom, his world really was flipped upside down.
Chuck: After that clip played, I received calls from radio, television stations, not only in Chicago, but across the United States. And once it reached the Associated Press and United Press International, the two wire services at the time, then the whole thing started to mushroom.
(A montage of news clips play)
“Last night, someone broke into regular programming here on Channel 9."... "The pirates interrupted WGN and WTTW programming with a show of their own!"... "Even in a medium that is no stranger to bizarre moments, these were truly bizarre."... "Reporter: 'So what did you think about the whole thing?' Kid: 'Very, very funny.'"
Amory: Funny to a kid maybe, because the second intrusion got real weird. After calling out Chuck Swirsky, the person in the Max Headroom mask, who appeared to be a man, also pulled down his pants revealing his bare ass. And then a woman showed up, also in a mask, to spank him repeatedly with a fly swatter.
The Masked Hacker: Ohhh do it ahhh!
Ben: The person starts screaming what sounds like “oohhhhhh oh do it.” This was not funny to Chuck Swirsky. Because that, combined with the person in the video calling him out specifically for being a “frickin' liberal,” led to some questions he wasn’t prepared to answer.
Chuck: People started asking me, “Well, so in the upcoming election, who are you who are you taking in 1988?” You know, “What are your views on this, this and this?” You know, I just want to be a guy, you know, just a guy on the street.
Amory: Whatever his feelings about politics, Chuck had been thrust into the spotlight in a broadcast signal hack. One of a short list of similar takeovers that seemed to be growing in number in the mid 1980s, looked at by some as a new form of terrorism. One that, even with its silliness and spanking, was about to get very serious.
News Broadcaster: The incidents are now under investigation by the FCC and the FBI.
Ben: FCC spokesperson Phil Bradford went on TV at the time and said this.
Phil Bradford: It is very serious and we’d like to inform anybody who is involved in this type of thing that it is serious and that we will take every step that we can to find out who is doing it. And once we have determined that, we will make sure that the full extent of the law is carried out.
Amory: The maximum penalty? A $100,000 fine and prison time.
Ben: More on the FCC’s investigation and questions about whether they did take every step to find the perpetrators... in a minute.
Ben: So, when some masked marauders took over 90 seconds of TV time in the major market of Chicago in 1987 it looked, and felt more than anything, like a prank. At least to some observers. But to other people, it was a huge deal.
Amory: Broadcast intrusions aren’t new. But doing it with a purpose, historically, has had political implications.
Ben: In 1966, a radio broadcast intrusion in a Soviet Union city claimed nuclear war had broken out with the United States.
Amory: In 1977, a UK television station delivered a message, supposedly from outer space, about a disaster that would impact the human race.
(The Alien Clip Plays)
Aliens: We come to warn you of the destiny of your race.
Amory: In 1986, HBO was in the process of changing its delivery technology. People used to be able to get Home Box Office for free by putting up a satellite dish. But HBO was gonna make it so that everyone had to pay a fee to get that stuff. Which angered a guy name John McDougal, whose satellite dish business relied on the old way. McDougal hacked the delivery system and put up a message for viewers that said...
"Good evening HBO from Captain Midnight. $12.95 a month? No way! Showtime, Movie Channel, beware!"
Ben: McDougal got turned in by a guy who overheard him bragging about his stunt.
Amory: A year later, thousands of randy viewers headed to the Playboy satellite network only to be met with a message from the Bible.
Amory: Specifically, the books of Exodus and Matthew.
Religious message: Thus sayeth the Lord thy God. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.
Ben: Years later, an uplink engineer employed by the Christian Broadcasting Network would be charged with the crime of trying to interrupt TV smut with religious morals.
Ben: All of these intrusions led to a feeling that there was an outbreak of hostile broadcast takeovers. But the Max Headroom incident was different because it was a successful interruption that included real video content — not just text overlays. It was a daring move.
Amory: Which we learned, in part, from one of the only deep dive pieces of journalism produced about this incident, from a reporter named Chris.
Chris Knittel: Hello. My name is Chris Knittel. I'm a documentary producer, journalist, writer.
Amory: Chris is usually doing documentary work about pretty heavy stuff — dog fighting, gun running, drug addiction. Max Headroom was a little outside of his usual wheelhouse. But when he stumbled upon YouTube videos of the broadcast interruption at two in the morning one night in 2012, he became obsessed.
Chris: I was instantly sort of captured by this, by the imagery and the sounds and sort of spooked and kind of bewildered with it.
Ben: Chris set out to do an investigative piece. One of the areas Chris focused on was the tech needed to pull off a stunt like this. In part, because once you understand the tools, you start to narrow the list of suspects. And what you need, simply put, is to become a broadcaster yourself.
Amory: This is what investigators focused on, too. Once the FCC got involved, there were two offices tackling the intrusion: the office in Washington D.C. and the regional office in Chicago. Chris talked to a guy named Michael Marcus, an investigator on the case from the D.C. office, and Marcus had a lot to say on the topic. Including the fact that, when he started trying to figure out who was behind the intrusion, he ran into some problems.
Chris: According to him, his hands were tied behind his back. He said that he did have what he thought was a credible idea of where they broadcasted [sic] their transmission, where they sent their signal out. But someone who he would not name, specifically who he worked with — I think his boss — did not want him to go and pursue that, did not want him knocking on doors.
Amory: Why? Why not knock on doors?
Chris: That I don't know.
Ben: Chris did have a theory though. One that connected to this idea that if you follow the tech, you can find your broadcast intrusion perps. WGN, the first station that had its airwaves hacked, might have had some disgruntled employees.
Chris: One area I didn't explore fully was there was a lot of layoffs in the months prior to the incident. To me, I feel like it's most likely someone who is a former broadcast employee in whatever capacity. But there's no hard evidence out there.
Amory: Part of the reason for a lack of evidence might be this tension that apparently existed between the FCC’s national and regional offices.
Ben: Basically, local cops versus national cops. Bigfooting stuff. And apparently, this may have influenced the effectiveness of the Headroom investigation. Because even when the FCC office in D.C. got a tip about a company where the hackers may have pre-taped the video, the Chicago people refused to go and question them.
Ben: We asked a former FCC investigator about this. His name is Jim Higgins, and he worked on all of the 1980s broadcast intrusions cases.
Ben: Did that contribute to the challenges with the case?
Jim Higgins: Yeah, well, I'm not sure I would call it tension. I mean, the folks here in D.C. were, you know, had some ideas about how this should be done. And the Chicago guys, you know, had some ideas and but they were the ones that are on the front lines. So they took some advice, but they didn't take all of the advice. You know, I wasn't so involved in that piece.
Amory: What about the idea that if you follow the technology involved you’ll find the perpetrators?
Ben: Can you explain some of this in the simplest five-year-old terms of like how something like this happens? Is it someone getting close enough to the transmitter to broadcast their own signal that overwhelms the other signal to the transmitter?
Jim: Actually, you just you just explained it probably in the simplest way. If your power is quite a bit stronger than the desired signal, then you'll override the desired signal and your signal will go out instead. And we discussed, you know, what kind of equipment it probably would have taken to do that. So we assumed someone who had access to the means, but we're not sure of the motive.
Ben: People have mentioned this idea that, at least at one of the stations, there had recently been some layoffs and the suggestion that there may have been a motive therein?
Jim: That's actually, now that you've mentioned that, that might have been something that I remember now hearing from our Chicago guys.
Ben: So, even though the FCC’s investigation never discovered the identity of the perpetrators, the evidence was pointing towards an inside job. And whoever was behind it, this was definitely a big deal at the time. Laws were being changed in the 1980s to make intrusions like this a felony. There were growing concerns about terrorism and extremism more generally. And at the time, broadcast intrusions felt like they could become a part of that. Not just hackers taking the piss out of the mainstream — more serious issues. There’s not a lot of hard evidence anywhere here, which is why it’s never been solved. It’s also why this story continues to come back to life periodically. It captures the minds of people who want answers, including people on Reddit.
Amory: And you will not be shocked to learn that Reddit did move the ball forward a bit. In part by focusing on the bizarre contents of the video itself. Which includes a parody of a Coke commercial, with the perpetrator throwing a Pepsi can…
(Max Headroom Hacker video plays)
Max Headroom Hacker: Catch the wave!
Ben: Also, a rendition of the theme song for the animated show Clutch Cargo…
Max Headroom Hacker: (sings) Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo.
Amory: And then there’s the direct jab at WGN, which, by the way, stands for World’s Greatest Newspaper…
Max Headroom Hacker: Oh I just made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds.
Ben: And this moment, when the Max Headroom hacker pulls out a glove and says, we think, “My brother is wearing the other one. But it’s dirty.”
Max Headroom Hacker: My brother is wearing the other one, but it’s dirty!
Amory: And that brings us to one of the theories about the hack that has popped up over the years — that it was pulled off by these two brothers, known only to the public as J and K.
Ben: This theory was introduced, on Reddit, by a guy named Bowie Poag. And Chris Knittel, the reporter, says this post is a big part of what has kept this story going decades after it happened.
Chris: To me, his story on Reddit just sort of a kind of supercharged the mystery, you know, and kind of inspired people to go down their own rabbit holes.
Amory: Bowie, this Redditor, eventually updated his Reddit post. Saying that he no longer considered J and K, the two brothers, suspects, this was due to new evidence he found in his own investigation — new evidence he won’t share publicly. He declined to record an interview with us. But he did answer a few of our questions via email, and so did his crime-solving partner — this guy named Rick Klein. Rick is the chief curator of an online museum of classic Chicago television, and he has a copy of the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion — the highest quality copy, he claims.
Ben: It was actually Chris’ reporting that brought Rick and Bowie together. They both grew up in Chicago and witnessed the hack live when they were 13 years old. And they were both inspired by this hacker prankster subculture. They’ve since joined forces in an amateur investigation of the incident. They set up a tip line, they interviewed people who were around at the time, they did their own analysis of the video, but still…
Amory: Still no answer! Though they are the keepers of some secrets — things they say they just won’t go into. Like, who specifically they’ve spoken to and who they think the Max Headroom hackers were.
Ben: And if, right now, you are calling bull----, like this all feels a little suspicious, you’re not alone. A lot of this story feels suspicious, which made us suspicious. So we asked Rick and Bowie if they were involved. They swore up and down that they were not. Fine.
Amory: Next stop on the ol’ suspicion train? How about Chuck Swirsky, the sportscaster?
Ben: You didn't do it, right?
Chuck: Absolutely not. I don't even — honestly, it takes me assistance to move pictures to a photo album on my computer. I mean, seriously, I'm shocked that it hasn't been solved.
Ben: Okay, what about Chris, who wrote thousands of words on this story? As a reporter who got interested decades after the thing happened, it’s pretty safe to say he was not directly involved. But what is his take on who was responsible?
Amory: When you started reporting on this, did you set out to solve it?
Chris: I don't know the answer to that because I don't know if I want it to be solved.
Chris: I don't know.
Ben: What! Why not?
Chris: You know, sometimes when you meet your heroes, you're disappointed.
Ben: Are they your heroes?
Chris: You know, I wouldn't rank them as my heroes. But, you know, it's folklore. It's a myth. You know, it's an urban legend. It's culture jamming, you know, sometimes I think that things like this are better left unsolved.
Ben: Wow this feels like a direct challenge.
Amory: I know! Mission accepted.
Ben: Mission failed.
Amory: So far.
Ben: The statute of limitations is long past. So it’s a little odd that the perpetrators haven’t come forward, for bragging rights at the very least. 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.
Chris: Bursting into the nightly news, into everyone's favorite program late at night and just invade their brain and turn their night upside down for just a brief moment. You know, culture jamming.
Amory: Even though it's just basically like gibberish, there's no clear message that we're supposed to take away from it?
Chris: How do you know it's gibberish?
Amory: Well, that's true.
Chris: I mean, for all we know, it's it's all it. It appears to be gibberish, but it could be a coded message.
Ben: And the myth continues. As well as the mystery.
Chris: I can say without a doubt the individuals involved are tight lipped. And they must have some sort of code that they decided to live by.
Ben: We gotta crack the pact, Amory.
Chris: Or do we?
Ben: Chris, you’ve been no help, thank you very much.
Chris: Who knows what could be unleashed?
Amory: Chris feels like, in a way, this story is an aspirational legend for hackers of the day and hackers now. It’s a dare — a way to say, “See what you can do? You can stop people in the middle of the rat race. Make the audience look up from their dead end jobs, snap out of their TV-watching zombie state.” You can culture jam.
Ben: Editor Alex Pasternack points out that there’s some irony here, in the idea of Max Headroom being part of culture jamming. By 1987, Max Headroom the brand had gone through its own transformation. From a subversive cyberpunk movie character, to a music video jockey with his own TV show in the US.
Alex: By that point, he had become a television pitchman. He was selling Coca-Cola. And there were these really funny ads.
(Coke commercial plays)
Coke Commercial: Catch it if you can, can. Catch the wave. Coke!
Alex: I think I saw him being interviewed on Letterman a lot because my parents watched Letterman.
David Letterman: I tell you what, Max, could you describe yourself for us? Just tell the folks a little bit about what you are, what you do.
Max Headroom: I suppose I see myself as witty! Urbane! Highly-ly-ly talented! Talented! Talented! Hugely successful and a keen sense of style…
Alex: The signal intruders may not have had enough time to say everything they wanted to. But I think my sense is that like they were performing, they were doing something that was that was meant to be, in some ways, a work of art. And in effect, a protest of the corporate media environment. You know, I think that there's there's something poetic about that. There's a certain delectability in the mystery of all of it.
Amory: In the decades since the incident, the mainstream has moved on. Forgotten about Max Headroom. Coca-Cola has new pitch people. The Max TV show is long gone. But the subversives remember. Headroom echos in the masked hacktivist group Anonymous, in the modern re-imaginings of Guy Fawkes, in the graphic novel "V for Vendetta." So in a way, the Chicago intrusion was a more pure and lasting version of Max Headroom. maybe precisely because the perpetrators have never been caught.
Ben: Amory, what is the equivalent of this incident in 2019 or 2020? Like, is it Jack Dorsey getting his Twitter feed hacked? Is it some crazy Netflix takeover move that we haven’t even seen yet? What is it?
Amory: Maybe it’s this:
CBS News anchor: Now to this story. A search is under way for a hacker who caused panic by triggering all of Dallas's emergency sirens at the same time.
Ben: Hey, I bet Chuck Swirsky is just glad all those sirens weren’t singing his name.
Amory: You wish they were singing your name, don’t you Ben.
Ben: I mean, I’m interested. I’m interested to hear that.
Amory: You better get a LOT better at computers.
Ben: On it!
Max Headroom (singing): It’s been a great show. We’re sorry that it’s through. Goodbye is such a sad worrrrrrrrrrd. So let’s just say, adieu. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen!
David Letterman: Max Headroom!
Bonus: Interview with Bowie Poag (u/bpoag) & Rick Klein, amateur investigators of the Max Headroom incident
When and why did you decide to conduct your own investigation into the Max Headroom case?
Rick: I always wondered who it was, and once I started making contacts with various people working in local television (due to the continuing growth of and attention from my Museum) I started believing that *someone* must know something. The only question was who and whether there would be proof. The investigation such as it was didn’t really begin in earnest until Bowie and I started talking about it and sharing info and clues.
Bowie: I had some interest in the case beforehand, but I didn’t really become that deeply interested in it until I met up with Rick. This was right after the Motherboard article was published, where we had both been featured. Here’s this guy named Rick who had been working a completely different angle to mine, which I found interesting, so, we began to share notes over the next few years, and casually looking into things where we still could.
Why were the two of you well-positioned to conduct such an investigation?
Rick: Well, I think I had developed my ties to people who worked in local television of the past. I also had the best available source tape of the incident (not the copy posted on YouTube by the way). Besides this I also was able to use my Museum as a “cover” for inquiries, since I would often reach out to people who may have saved old tapes. A little bit of an advantage compared to just Joe Blow walking in off the street asking questions. As far as Bowie goes, he has advanced technical knowledge in computers and the methods and means of hacking in general. He also has a great eye for detail and can examine evidence or test theories quite well.
Bowie: I wouldn’t say we’re well-positioned, outside of the fact that Rick and I both grew up in the area, Rick has a good number of contacts with people in the local broadcasting circles in Chicago, and I still remember what the local hacking scene was like in the late 80’s. For my own part, it just seemed like a fun and interesting puzzle to work on. I like being able to throw my hat in the ring on older puzzles that might benefit from being examined with more modern approaches, and seeing what I can do with them. I remember about 10 years ago, before the whole Max thing spun up, I tried my hand at cracking “Z340”, one of the Zodiac serial killer’s last undeciphered messages. For fun, on Reddit, I took a couple days off from work to sit down and see what I could extract out of it, and actually managed to emerge something meaningful after the first day or so. (There are unusual fold lines in the letter, and none of those folds crosses through any symbol.) ..Later, around that time, the Headroom case attracted my attention, and stirred up some memories of old acquaintances I had back when I was a tween.. so, I figured I’d throw my hat in on that puzzle next.
How collaborative was it and how much did you each do individually?
Rick: Well, we had a few tips come from my “tip line”. I also had information from my continual investigating and talking to people. Bowie did a very thorough technical analysis of the videotape of the incident which yielded a major piece of information. Bowie also did research into other technical aspects of the hack which he was able to confirm with my help. We both did “in the field” reconnaissance and information gathering (if you want to call it that) where I put a little extra on the line in order to get info and evidence, but in the end it was mostly a collaborative effort. We still disagree on some things and we aren’t absolutely sure about anything – but we are very confident in what we do know. I still hold out hope for a confession or that “smoking gun” piece of evidence that removes all doubt.
Bowie: Rick has actually been working on it longer than I have, but it’s something we’ve worked on, together, since the publication of the Motherboard article, in 2013. It’s always been pretty casual. While it’s been years since we’ve clocked any serious time on it, we still talk about the case on and off every few months, or when something interesting appears in the media about it. As for the work, this involved doing things like stepping through the incident videos frame by frame, reconstructing parts of it, stripping the audio and sending it off to a lab to see if it could be cleaned up or further deciphered, interviewing people who were around at the time, things like that. There are a couple interesting discoveries that emerged from that effort. If you want an example, we used to believe that the rotating background behind Max was a sheet of corrugated metal. We no longer do; If you zoom in a bit on the background, and look closely at the black stripes, there’s sort of a repeating little dimple in it, every few inches. Our best guess was that these stripes must have come from something like a dented roll of black electrical tape. We also noticed in certain frames where the edge of the rotating background is visible, that the stripes themselves seem to extend and hang limp off the edge a little. We call these “dog ears”. So, to test out the theory that the background was something like electrical tape on cardboard rather than corrugated metal, we went out and bought a couple rolls of electrical tape, and spray-painted a large piece of cardboard white, and laid out the stripes in the same pattern. With an old camera and light source in the right position, sure enough, it seems to have the same properties as what we see in the video, dog ears and all. It looked eerily similar to the original.
You concluded that “the possibility of this having been an ‘outside job’ is basically zero … all the things which needed to have been possessed by an outside amateur or amateurs, no matter how talented, simply did not exist in the wild in 1987.” What would have needed to be “possessed” that did not exist in the wild in 1987? (please speak as technically as needed)
Rick: That’s a Bowie quote, so I will let him address it if he wants. I’ll just point out that I prefer not to speak in absolutes as much as Bowie, so I wouldn’t say the possibility is basically zero, but I would qualify it by simply stating that it is extremely unlikely. :-)
Bowie: Rick has a point about the dangers of speaking in absolutes, but, from what we’ve gathered, I’d still say it’s basically zero, even now. Among other things, Max needed to have had access to (and a deep working familiarity with) the kinds of commercial equipment required, and knowledge of the STL locations of each station.
The Dept of Justice’s default five-year statute of limitations for prosecuting the “Headroom Hacker” has long since passed. Why do you think, still, no one has come forward
Rick: Perhaps the person doesn’t want to admit it due to issues of ego, or doesn’t want to worry about other possible (non-legal) consequences for him.
Bowie: That, and privacy.. Considering Max is likely a senior citizen at this point, I would imagine not wanting to spend your retirement being hounded by the internet and the media would play into it.
We spoke to Chuck Swirsky who says he did not have any notable “enemies” and has no idea why anyone would call him a “fricken nerd” and a “fricken liberal?” Do you guys have any guesses, educated or otherwise?
Rick: From my reading of the video, Max was disparaging sportscaster Dan Roan, not Chuck Swirsky. Remember, the recording of the hack was initially planned for the WGN 9:00 Newscast. Due to a combination of technical difficulties and a WGN engineer who took evasive action, the hack was stopped in its tracks. Max then “regrouped” and used the same tape to hijack WTTW during Doctor Who. Unfortunately the WGN digs and references didn’t make much sense, but Max probably felt like he didn’t want to be beaten and switched to WTTW just because he could.
So originally planned, and as had occurred, Max broke in to WGN’s signal during Dan Roan’s sports report. Then he comments on hm and calls him (Dan) a “frickin’ nerd” and says something like “this guy thinks he’s better than Chuck Swirsky” or maybe it was “at least this guy’s better than Chuck Swirsky”. So Chuck Swirsky was used as a reference but only in comparison to Dan Roan is what I believe. Although perhaps the next line about being a liberal was directed at Swirsky. Hard to say for sure.
Bowie: I’ve always interpreted it as “Yeah, I think I’m better than Chuck Swirsky”, as to imply that he (Max) was the more interesting one to watch. To my knowledge, I don’t think we ever unearthed any real reason why anyone would have a problem with Chuck Swirsky. The “frickin’ liberal” comment itself is sort of telling, in that it suggests that “Max” is right-leaning, politically. I’d imagine that if Chuck were the focal point behind the signal intrusions, Max would have gone on at some length about him. Max’s mention of Chuck seems to be only done in passing. The rest just seems like a mixture of nose-thumbing and bad prop comedy.
What motivation might someone have had to criticize and call out WGN in November of 1987?
Rick: Perhaps something related to a work dispute? Who knows.
Bowie: Best guess? Some sort of ongoing work dispute. I don’t think it was a spur of the moment thing.
Why do you think the FCC has never been able to identify the people behind the Max Headroom incident, even though they were able to quickly solve other broadcast hacks around the same time (Captain Midnight, Playboy TV)?
Rick: I think the Max perpetrator hid their tracks very well, to the point that even if they were a suspect, as long as they held firm under questioning, there would be no hard evidence to move forward.
Bowie: Agreed. It reads to me like some care was taken to obscure nearly every aspect of what was sent out, so as to make it rather difficult to pull anything out of it, forensically.
What was the significance of the Headroom incident back in 1987? Why do you think people are still fascinated by the Headroom Incident in 2019?
Rick: It was just a weird little mostly humorous event of a now by-gone era of analog television. The strangeness and creepiness of it takes on more meaning as time goes by. And the fact that it’s unsolved perhaps. Also the mask.
Bowie: Yeah.. I think it boils down to people having natural desire to resolve or explain things that seem unresolved. Worse, it’s a little creepy. I don’t think it was meant to be creepy, but it came off that way, which certainly adds to it.
We contacted each of you individually for interviews, yet you responded together. Why?
Rick: We agree to coordinate media responses so as to not blindside the other and to also make sure we don’t give too much away or attract unwanted attention.
Bowie: Like I mentioned above, It’s been years since Rick and I have logged any real time against the case, but people still contact us pretty regularly about it. Most people are cool about it, simply curious about it and want to learn more, but then there are people who want to make a name for themselves by either trying to exploit us, or people we’ve talked to about the case. Whenever something comes up, Rick and I run everything by each other to help protect against that. It’s been that way for years.
Declining our invitation for an interview is harmless enough. Doing so for “a lot of reasons,” as you wrote, “most of which [you’d] prefer not to talk about” sounds suspicious, naturally. What are your reasons for declining that you ARE willing to share?
Rick: Bowie can address this better probably but another reason was possible negative reaction from the hacking community, such as doxing, etc. We’d rather not stir the pot.
Bowie: Yup. And for me, another big part of it is to avoid putting pressure on ourselves, and putting pressure on the people we’ve spoken with in the past. It’s helpful to show that we take others’ privacy seriously, if we expect to have people come forward with what they know.
You also wrote, “there are a few subjects we can’t really go into at this point in time.” Which subjects are those (even if you can’t speak about them in detail)?
Rick: Who we believe Max may have been and how they may have done it.
Bowie: Mainly those, yes. That and who we’ve spoken with, and to what length.
Why are there subjects you can’t go into at this point in time?
Bowie: We’re just trying to do what’s right by people we’ve talked to. We’ve always tried to do that, which usually translates to remaining silent.
Will there ever be a time when you will be able to speak more freely about these subjects?
Bowie: Will there ever be a time? God, I hope so.. hah.. there’s a million stories in the big city..It looks like 1980’s Chicago was no exception.
Are you withholding information that could potentially lead to the identification of the perpetrators of the Headroom incident?
Bowie: Yes, I’d imagine so.. and we’ve made that clear before on Reddit.. we just can’t do that if it would be at someone else’s expense. It wouldn’t be right to do that, particularly to people who don’t wish to put themselves in the spotlight.
Are you connected to the perpetrators of the Headroom incident in any way?
Bowie: Ha.. Flattered, but no.
Rick: Nope, honestly we’re not.
No offense, but you guys are being very cagey! Why shouldn’t people suspect you?
Rick: We’re just trying to protect our story, and what we know, until the time is right, that’s all.
Bowie: Agreed... I’m sure our being overly cautious comes across as suspicious to some, unfortunately. As for why people shouldn’t suspect us…well, there’s the obvious.. Rick and I didn’t know each other when we were kids, but we were both barely 13 in November of 1987, and I was living way out in the suburbs when the Headroom incidents happened. I had a budding beginners-level interest in hacking, sure, but nothing anywhere near that kind of level.
Anything else you want to say?
Bowie: Just a thank you for the opportunity, and for being understanding and fair. That’s all we really ask of anybody. We’re just a couple of guys who spent their spare time looking at the case, not some shadowy secret cabal sitting around grinning, rubbing our hands together. Some people don’t get that, which is why we don’t often grant interviews. I think most people get it, and respect that we’re trying to do the right thing here. We don’t want to disappoint anyone, but for now, there are still people who’ve simply chosen privacy over publicity, and we have to honor that.
Reddit is good at solving mysteries. Why haven’t Redditors been able to solve this one?
Bowie: Given enough time and effort, they might. Beyond that, there’s a fair number of people who don’t even want it solved; they’d prefer it to be something like a landmark, which is understandable.
Bowie, how has your life changed since posting about Max Headroom?
Bowie: For a while, it was really, really interesting, digging into the forensics and piecing things together as best we’ve been able to, but digging around loses its shine after a while. I’m also glad to have made a new friend in Rick along the way, too. I’ve moved on to other puzzles in the time since. BOC Aquarius is my new fascination (Just search for Boards of Canada, ‘Aquarius’ and give it a listen, you’ll see.) I’ve been feeling the urge to take a few days off of work to try and solve that one, too. ?
Do you have any regrets related to Max Headroom?
Bowie: Many. I think I underestimated how interested the public would be in what I had to share with regard to the Reddit AMA. What I thought would just something interesting to post one afternoon ended up becoming a commitment to update, and maintain for years. The trolling, the accusations, things like that I wasn’t really prepared for, either.
Rick, when and why did you found the Museum of Classic Chicago Television?
Rick: Ever since I was in early high school, I enjoyed finding old videotapes of broadcasts recorded off of TV. They felt like the closest thing to time-travelling for me. When I grew up, and where I grew up, no one I knew had a videotape recorder. (well maybe one Aunt that we didn’t see often – it certainly wasn’t something I had access to) So once things aired, that was it. Stations would change affiliations, or roll out some new graphics package or a logo change and the old stuff would be all but forgotten.
When I first put in an old tape and saw something I had completely forgotten about – UNTIL I saw it again – I was amazed and fascinated by that feeling, and it was probably a bit addictive as well. There was also the factor of the rarity of this footage, at least from the time period I grew up and am most interested in (late-seventies, early-eighties) – because as mentioned not too many people had video recorders back then, especially in the 70s – so each tape found of an uninterrupted recording feels like a lost gem.
Combine this with an even further pre-existing interest / attraction to things like garbage picking (such as when a neighbor down the street threw a whole ton of records out next to his garbage cans), collecting in general, flea markets and Maxwell street, it all came together.
Once I started sharing my odd passion on YouTube in 2006, things increased exponentially from there.
I incorporated as a non-profit Museum starting in 2009 to help with any possible copyright issues. It has helped. I just want to share this material and I believe original broadcast off-the-air recordings are unique artifacts that should be given some exception to normal copyright law. While not always successful on this front, I think my museum has certainly helped raise the profile and awareness of these recordings and appreciation of them and has also inspired many other YouTube pages of similar material as well as other sites such as The Oddity Archive which examine broadcast ephemera, among other things.
Rick, what type of presence does Max Headroom have in the museum?
Rick: For a long time it was the most viewed clip on the main site as well as the YouTube page. (still in the top 5 at least I believe) It fits right in since besides more normal elements we also like to preserve moments that are even more ephemeral – technical difficulties, special bulletins, on screen crawls, weather alerts, stuff that only happened once – so this definitely fits that category.
What about the Playboy TV hack or Captain Midnight
Rick: The Playboy and Captain Midnight things were satellite hacks and so didn’t interest me as much since it wasn’t strictly on a local channel. That said, I would enjoy finding an off-air recording of the cable stations that the two hacks appeared on, so the thing could be preserved and seen in their entirety. It’s been a while since I looked these up on YouTube – it’s possible someone already posted Captain Midnight but maybe not as a first generation recording or posted the complete event without editing including from before and after the event portions of the movie (Falcon and the Snowman!)
Rick, I believe you were one of — if not the — original person to upload footage of the Headroom hack to YouTube. Is that correct?
Rick: Yep, that was one of the first things I uploaded to YouTube, although not the first thing, in 2006. I was definitely the first to post it to YouTube. There was an earlier webpage on a separate site that someone did which talked about the hack and had a lower quality .RAM file (RealPlayer format) of a recording of it, so I wasn’t the first to put it *online*, just the first on YouTube.
Where did the footage you uploaded come from and why did you upload it?
Rick: In finding so many tapes over the years it was inevitable that I would come across multiple copies of it (the WTTW hack, not the WGN one) from multiple sources, since Doctor Who had enough of a nerdy obsessive fanbase to warrant recording it and saving the tapes. And I have found multiple sources. The best though, and one which we (Bowie and I) used for a lot of our analysis was an original VHS recording in SP (2 hour) mode with no reception problems – so basically as good as you can find on a consumer format, excerpt perhaps if someone recorded it in Beta I on Betamax, but Beta was on its way out in 1987 so that is less likely.
The very first tape I had of it was “borrowed” (kept and never returned) from a friend in 8th Grade whose father was a fan of Doctor Who and would record the show every week. I asked my friend to snag that tape from his Dad to make sure he didn’t record over it the next week. So this was just a few days after the incident occurred, which I originally heard about from news reports. Coincidentally, the hack and reviewing the tape of the show eventually led me to start watching Doctor Who and I became a big fan.
Rick, you opened up a Max Headroom tip line at some point. Did you get a lot of tips? Any good ones? Any funny ones? If there are any worth sharing, please do!
Rick: Yes. We had narrowed the range of focus before that, but the anonymous tip line e-mail was the thing that really sparked it all off.
Other than that, we got some other theories, some well defended and thought out, but nothing that survived our scrutiny after a few days at most of looking into.