20 Years Ago Tonight, 'Max Headroom' the Video Pirate Took Over Chicago's Airwaves

20 years ago today, during a broadcast of a Dr. Who episode on WTTW channel 11 in Chicago, a video pirate took over the airwaves dressed as Max Headroom (remember him?). Wearing a mask and standing in front of a moving background, the video pirate rambled for a couple minutes in a tough-to-understand voice and then voluntarily went off the air. Who was this prankster, and what was he trying to accomplish? Good question. No one knows who he was or what the point of the broadcasts were (it was actually the second of the evening, with the first being a shorter clip of the same video broadcast during the evening news on a different channel). It's not like there was a message really, either. The ramblings are pretty tough to make out, and when you do they don't make a whole lot of sense.

That's not to say that it was brushed off as not that big a deal; the FCC actually launched an investigation trying to figure out just who this Max Headroom character was to no avail.

How exactly did he do it? An article from the November 24, 1987 Chicago Sun-Times explains it thusly:

"It's pretty apparent it was local," said Robert Strutzel, WGN director of engineering. Strutzel explained that the intrusions could have come from a high-rise apartment or a roof between the WGN transmitter on the Northwest Side at 2501 W. Bradley and its antenna atop the Hancock Building.

"It's not the kind of thing that's done by somebody in his basement," Strutzel said. "It's sophisticated microwave equipment at pretty high power levels to overcome our installation. And the room for error is very small."

Commercial-grade equipment of this sort would cost around $25,000 and could be carried in a few suitcases, he said - or the equipment could be rented.

You've gotta assume that it'd be next to impossible to do something like this today with cable and satellite companies controlling how people get their TV in most places, but it could probably still be done to people getting stations over the air in major metropolitan areas. You'd just hope if someone did it today they'd pick a costume with more cultural staying power, no? [TNS via Fark]

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