The Masked Intruder Who Caused Chaos in America


Jackson Adams, Writer

The 1980s were remarkably interesting years, especially for television. This era spawned a new wave of classics, such as Full House in 1987, Seinfeld in 1989, and even 21 Jump Street in 1987. A notable television show that also aired was Max Headroom, a 1987 sci-fi about a man who digitalizes his mind into a computer program, creating an artificial intelligence generated personality named Max Headroom. The show had extremely high ratings and was considered successful at the time. Many people began to view Max Headroom himself as a 1980s icon, and the show went on to influence people around the world. However, a few months after the show first aired, something peculiar happened.

It all began on the night of November 22nd, 1987. Thousands of Chicago residents were tuned in to the WGN Channel 9’s 9 O’clock News. During the sportscast, a Chicago sportscaster named Dan Roan was covering the Chicago Bears game, highlighting the recent victory over the Detroit Lions. As Dan was describing how the game went with the football newsreel playing, the screen suddenly went black, and static noise could be heard.

The screen stayed black for a while before suddenly, a strange new scene popped up on the screen, with a distorted noise playing in the background. On the television, a peculiar figure was displayed wearing a mask that resembled Max Headroom himself. The mask had on sunglasses, had nice white teeth, showed off a square chin, and had slick blonde hair. Besides the mask, the figure wore a suit and tie, and in the background, a corrugated piece of metal was twirling around. Viewers stared as the figure moved around quickly, seemingly trying to communicate and laugh, when suddenly the screen went black again.

Dan Roan appeared once again, appearing to be in bewilderment. He then straightened up and said, “Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened… so am I.” Roan then continued his scheduled broadcast.

But little did anyone know that their bewilderment would only grow a few hours later. On Channel 11, at about 11:15 PM, WWTW, which was a PBS affiliate, was airing an episode of Doctor Who. Specifically, the episode “The Horror of Fang Rock.” Like before, the screen suddenly went black, and the figure appeared again. Only this time… there was audio, so the figure could communicate with the audience.

Despite the distortion, viewers were able to make out some of the things the Max Headroom figure was saying. The man in the mask proceeded to speak his first words to the audience, saying, “That does it. He’s a frickin’ nerd. That’s right, I’m better than Chuck Swirsky. Frickin’ liberal.” The person that the Max Headroom figure was talking about, Chuck Swirsky, was a sports director for WGN Radio in Chicago. He was a part of multiple radio networks for sports. The reason why this mysterious figure mentioned his name was never discovered, although, from Chuck’s point of view, it made him fear for his safety.

After saying this, he held a Pepsi can to the camera and recited the Coca-Cola slogan, “Catch the wave!” He did other things, including singing the lyrics “your love is fading” from (I Know) I’m Losing You by the Temptations. Eventually, he held up a glove to the camera and mentioned, “My brother is wearing the other one.” He put the glove on while telling the audience that the glove was dirty. The erratic behavior continued with him yelling “Oh no, they’re coming to get me!” A woman then appeared on screen and told him to bend over, and then began swatting at the figure’s bottom with a fly swatter.

Finally, after over a minute, the figure disappeared, and the screen went black for the final time that night. Strangely enough, there were no engineers on duty at the time, so the 90-second transmission ended before anyone noticed.

News quickly spread about this incident as WGN and WWTW broadcasted the video of the intrusion repeatedly. As more people were aware of this incident, the amusement grew. Many people, including children, thought it was funny. Some were left confused, some found the intrusion frightening, and there were even some people left upset due to their favorite TV show getting interrupted.

But while most of the public was amused, the government found the situation very serious.

Quickly after the incident, the FCC and FBI immediately jumped into an investigation to find out who was responsible for the intrusion. Phil Bradford, an FCC spokesperson, told a reporter that the maximum penalty for an intrusion, which is a felony, was a $100,000 dollar fine, one year in jail, or even both.

Intrusions like these weren’t new, and past intrusions were big reasons why the Max Headroom intrusion was such a huge deal. In 1966, there was a radio broadcast intrusion in a Soviet Union city. The intrusion claimed that a nuclear war had broken out with the United States. In 1977, a UK TV station delivered a message from “outer space,” which was warning humanity about a major disaster. In 1986, HBO was beginning to change its delivery technology, making viewers pay a fee for the channel. A guy named John McDougal got upset at this and hacked into their delivery system and displayed a message that read, “Good evening HBO from Captain Midnight. $12.95 a month? No way! Showtime, Movie Channel, beware!”

The Max Headroom incident was different from all these other television intrusions. This is because it was the first successful intrusion with real, pre-recorded video content rather than text overlays like Captain Midnight. The FCC was eventually able to figure out how the hacker pulled it off. The hacker placed their own satellite dish antenna in between the transmitter tower, which allowed an effective interruption with the original signal. With this strategy, the hacker did not need any expensive equipment. All they needed was good positioning and good timing, and it worked successfully.

Despite all the FCC and FBI’s investigations, to this day, they still have never found the identity of the mysterious hacker. However, evidence did point toward the intrusion being an inside job, perhaps by someone who used to work at WGN.

As time passed, however, the case was almost forgotten until Reddit users started bringing the story back to life in hopes of finding the answer to this unforgettable story. As with many cold cases, Reddit users still throw around theories of who the hacker could’ve possibly been, and perhaps someday, they will finally find the missing piece to solve the puzzle of who was the masked mastermind behind the signal intrusion.