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Television's Most Infamous Hack Is Still a Mystery 30 Years Later

On November 22, 1987, someone hacked two local news broadcasts in Chicago to show Max Headroom. The hacker's motive and identity has never been discovered.

Caroline Haskins

Caroline Haskins

Image: Dan Stuckey

For more about the theories and conspiracies behind the Headroom hack, read Motherboard's classic 2013 investigation, The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack.

It was a few minutes after 9 PM on Sunday, November 22, 1987. Chicago sportscaster Dan Roan was cheerily summarizing the Bears’s victory that day for Channel 9 local news. Suddenly, televisions went silent, and their screens went black. At first, it seemed like an equipment malfunction.

Without warning, televisions in the area blasted loud radio static. It was overlain with the screech of a power saw cutting into metal, or a jet engine malfunctioning. At center screen, a person wore a Max Headroom mask—a character who appeared on various television shows and movies in the 1980s. He appeared to have yellow skin, yellow clothes, and yellow slicked-back hair. As purple and black lines spun behind him, Max nodded and swayed back and forth. His plastic face was stuck in laughter, and opaque sunglasses covered his eyes, which seemed to peer through the screen.

The screen went black again. After a moment, Roan reappeared.

“Well if you’re wondering what’ll happen,” Roan said with a laugh, unaware of what had happened during the interruption, “so am I.”

Two hours later, it happened again on another channel. This time, Dr. Who had just turned to get his companion, Leela, a hot drink, when a line of static rolled across the screen, revealing the yellow man.

“He’s a frickin nerd!” Max said, referring to the Doctor. His laugh is distorted, as if half machine.

“Yeah, I think I’m better than Chuck Swirsky,” he said, referring to a local sportscaster. “Frickin liberaaaaaaal!”

Max Headroom spent the next two minutes in a frenzy—humming, moaning, screaming, and mocking Coca-Cola and Chicago Tribune journalists. The screen went black while someone offscreen was using a flyswatter to slap his bare ass.

*

After 30 years and an intense FCC investigation, the people behind the Headroom hack remain unknown. In 2013, Motherboard published one of the most comprehensive articles on the subject, but this week—to celebrate the anniversary of the Max Headroom hack, I caught up with Dan Roan and Chuck Swirsky—the local newscasters Max interrupted and mocked.

I spoke with Roan on the phone, and he said that a voice in his earbud said the station's signal had been pirated. When Roan saw the broadcast a few minutes later with his coworkers, they found it hilarious.

“To be perfectly honest, I would probably never give [Max Headroom] a second thought, beyond the fact that people email me or call me [about it] probably four, five times a year,” he said. “So it certainly had an impact on somebody. Maybe not quite so much on me.”

I asked Roan if he thinks rejected applicants to Channel 9 or former employees could’ve been behind the Max Headroom hijack.

“I’ll tell you what, if some spurned applicants or disgruntled employees figured out a way to do that [signal hijack], they should’ve been working here in the first place,” he said. “My guess was it was a couple of tech nerds that made it happen a couple times and then went underground as fast as they could. The FCC was not playing around back then.”

When I called Swirsky, we were interrupted at least three times by a broadcast announcing an evacuation drill at his hotel, which somehow felt appropriate. Once the interruption stopped, Swirsky told me that he was completely baffled that the persona targeted him.

He didn’t watch the broadcast live, but family and friends started blowing up his house phone immediately after it ended.

“I was just baffled, stunned, flabbergasted,” he said. “I still to this day don’t understand why my name was used. Even though I’m a sportscaster, I keep a very low profile. It’s not like I’m out there pontificating politically. “

Swirsky said that he’s used to attention from places like Saturday Night Live, which named a recurring skit about Chicago Bears fans (“Bill Swirsky’s Super Fans”) after him. But when the Max Headroom hack was posted to YouTube, he got a new type of attention.

“See what’s happened is [the Headroom hack] has become a cult following now,” Swirsky said. “People always say, ‘Hey are you the guy that’s in the Max Headroom…?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ It’s rather strange. I’m just a basketball announcer. I don’t get why they used my name.”

I asked Swirsky what he would say to the Max Headroom hackers if he had the opportunity.

“I probably wouldn’t say anything,” he said with a laugh, “because I don’t want them to do it again.”

The Max Headroom hack has become a cyberpunk hacking trope, influencing everything from Jack Nicholson’s Joker to the plot of V for Vendetta. But even before its place in culture, the Headroom hack was a major news story. The first known television signal hijack in America had just occurred that same year.

Back then, the powerful microwave transmitting equipment required for the task would have cost thousands of dollars. As television has shifted to digital and satellite transmissions, signal hijacks have become even more difficult. But they still happen to smaller media outlets. Earlier this year, a local British radio station had its signal chronically hijacked with "The Winker's Song" (yes, it's about masturbation).