This period comes but once a year. At the end of November, we gather with loved ones and reminisce about an easier time. There may be some controversy surrounding this festival, but most of us still love it for what it represents. That’s right, I’m talking about the anniversary Max Headroom Signal Intrusion Incident,
On November 22, 1987, potential hackers intercepted Chicago’s WGN evening news broadcast for about half a minute, but their message was truncated by the network. His subsequent hijacking of the late-night broadcast of WTTW’s Doctor Who rerun was Chicago audience shown in its entirety, Criminals managed to deliver a signal more powerful than the network delivered, a difficult but not impossible task in those analog days.
The person appearing on the screen wore a mask which depicted “Max Headroom,” a satirical late-night host of a science-fiction TV show who became a sort of cult figure in the ’80s. Max, the officially licensed one, even featured in letterman Once.
Our masked bandit of the airwaves made cryptic and borderline incomprehensible announcements referencing pop culture and Chicago broadcasts, while someone in the background swung a corrugated metal sheet back and forth to mimic Max Headroom’s signature digital background. After more than a minute of juggling, the broadcast cuts to our host being by someone off-camera with a fly swatter, in a seemingly safe fashion for work, I might add. Words really fail to do it justice.
Till date, criminals have never been brought to justice, if we can call it so. The $100,000 fine and the years in prison they would have spent are well beyond the statute of limitations, so our hackers won’t face any dire consequences for coming forward after all these years. That being said, I hope we never find out who did it. Their anonymity, coupled with the slightly disturbing insensitivity of the whole thing, really enhances the mystery of it. Ben Brock Johnson put it well 2019 radio presentation For WBUR Boston on this topic:
“But it’s possible that the legend of Max Headroom Signal Intrusion is more important, and more powerful, without masking it. Maybe it’s more useful as a reminder to hackers that culture jamming is possible.”
I think some kooky who decided to shock and get away with it with their technical savvy and peculiar sense of humor in the Reagan years never returned the well, but we never will. Really know for sure. What can be more “hacker” than this, dare I say it, and cyberpunk more than that?
So Happy Delayed Max Headroom Signal Intrusion Day to you and yours. May we never know the identity of its cowardly criminals.