CHICAGO — One of the greatest mysteries in broadcast history remains unsolved. On November 22, 1987 someone—maybe a group of people—hijacked WGN’s signal and interrupted the 9 p.m. news.
Hours later, it happened again at another Chicago station.
In broadcast history, it’s believe it has only happened one other time in the United States—that person prosecuted for pirating HBO’s signal in 1986.
While quirky and even amusing to some the broadcast interruption was a very big deal. And it was an even bigger deal that the guilty party was never caught.
Who and why they did it is still a great unknown.
Thirty years ago, Chicago’s Very Own had a slower pace and had a mom and pop appeal. But one Sunday newscast was very different.
WGN sports anchor Dan Roan was getting into Bears highlights when all of a sudden, at 9:14 p.m., his studio monitor went black and so did televisions at home.
Then a masked man appeared on the screen making no noise and moving back and forth.
He was wearing the face of a fictitious 80s failing sitcom character named Max Headroom
It went on for 25 long and painful seconds until the engineers could switch the microwave path back to local programming.
“I looked over at the monitor and this image, I could tell it wasn’t a sports highlight,” Jon Walgren, former WGN floor director, said.
“We got a laugh out of it. We went home and woke up to the newspapers and it was a pretty big deal,” Roan said.
The hijack was on every local newscast and in every area newspaper. Even the Washington Post, USA Today and other national media was puzzled by the pirating that kicked not only WGN off the air, but WTTW as well.
WTTW’s incident took place two hours later on the very same night. While devoted “Dr. Who” fans sat and watched late night or slept and taped their favorite sci-fi show, the same masked man blurted a bunch of inaudible gibberish and got smacked with a flyswatter on his bare behind. The incident lasted closer to two minutes.
The WTTW version had some sound. And with great difficulty, under all the noise, you could hear the Max Headroom imposter mention the name of Chuck Swirsky— a WGN Radio guy who filled in for Roan on the sports desk from time to time.
“My phone started exploding. It was a Sunday night and I had no clue what was going on so it was a shock,” Swirsky said. “I was completely baffled. Why me? Why insert ‘Chuck Swirsky’ into this thing? I still don’t understand.”
Over at WTTW, the old timers explained how Channel 11’s lack of a backup plan left the fraudulent Max Headroom on for too long. They couldn’t switch the signal. WGN could and did it in a short amont of time.
Al Skierkiewicz has been a broadcast maintenance engineer at WTTW since 1973. He helped the FCC investigate back then.
“If you were to draw a line in between both of our studio facilities, that line would end up somewhere between the Sears Tower and John Hancock downtown,” Skierkiewicz said. “Somebody could essentially see both of our transmit facilities at Sears and Hancock from the same location.”
So why Max Headroom—an oddball character fading in popularity?
“He would pop in, often the most inappropriate time, make a wry comment or be spying on somebody or what have you,” Walter J. Podrazik, Museum of Broadcast Communications, said. “Max Headroom was a truth teller.”
However, no one had a clue what truth Max Headroom was telling. Maybe it was nothing more than a crazy stunt that left FC investigators, engineers, and TV experts scratching their heads ever since. Maybe it was just one of the greatest gags of all time that right at the old number 9.
“You can do that? Someone pulled it off and didn’t get caught?” Podrazik said.
“People are fascinated by it only because it is a singular event and they never found out who did it,” Roan said.
The FCC never found out who did it or why.
One of the strange side effects from this incident is that many people found themselves rooting for the gutsy guy who pulled it off.