It was Sunday evening, November 22, 1987 nearly a festive night for fans of Doctor Who. The following day marked 24 years since the British science fiction classic first aired. While Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, was the final incumbent, Chicago PBS station WTTW repeated the first episode of the Fourth Doctor adventure. “The Horror of Fang Rock.”
Those who tuned in to the 10-year adventure were probably familiar with the concept that anything could happen in a Time Lord’s life, but they weren’t expecting what they were seeing. A few minutes into the broadcast, the scene with an early 20th-century lighthouse faded and the face of fictional AI character Max Headroom appeared.
But it wasn’t really Headroom, played by Matt Frewer, who recently rose to fame with the character hosting 20 Minutes Into the Future. It was someone wearing a headroom mask and fooling around on the chopped ethers for about 90 seconds. In those seconds, the masked man spoke what appeared to be gibberish, beginning with, “That’s enough. He’s a bloody nerd!” followed by references to local sports commentator Chuck Swirsky, Headroom’s recent Coca-Cola commercial and words that were difficult to understand. He put on one glove, said his brother had the other, made a comment about “world newspaper nerds,” then said, “Whoa! They’re coming for me!” as he disappeared from the screen and was replaced by a man leaning over to reveal his bare bottom, which was then slapped by a woman. “Oh come on!” were the last words heard as the hack ended, replaced by Fourth Doctor Tom Baker back at the lighthouse announcing, “As far as I can tell, massive electric shock – he died instantly.”
It was the second intervention of the evening. A little earlier, local news station WGN-TV had a 30-second blackout when the same number appeared, although no sound was being broadcast at the time. Together, the event made headlines around the world and became known as the max headroom signal hijacking — even though the headroom element was nothing more than a mask.
Check out the Max Headroom Hack
WTTW broadcasting director Paul Rizzo later recalled his horror as the moment unfolded. “Suddenly we don’t have any Doctor Who on air — we have this Max Headroom mask,” he said. “And the weirder the content got, the more stressed we got on our inability to do anything about it.” Colleague Al Skierkiewicz added, “It had to be a broadcast engineer, a satellite engineer, or a ham radio operator. And probably a combination of at least two of those to pull this off.”
In 2019, Swirsky told the endless thread Podcast that after the break he was inundated with calls he wasn’t watching. “‘Hey, did you just hear…’ or ‘Did you see?'” he was asked. “‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Maximum headroom!’ “Yeah, what about Max Headroom?” ‘Well, I mean, he mentioned you!’ I said, ‘What did he say?’ “He said you were a bloody liberal.”…I thought it was a prank!…I really didn’t get this whole Max Headroom phenomenon. I mean, I really couldn’t relate to him. I had no connection.”
Swirsky has been the center of media attention for all the wrong reasons. “I had a few friends who told me… ‘You better take shelter.’ Whoever did that had to be pretty smart and perceptive to do what they did,” he recalled. “People started asking me, ‘Well, with the elections coming up, who are you voting for in 1988?’ You know, ‘What are your views on this, this, and this?’ You know, I just want to be a guy, just a guy on the street.” The Federal Communications Commission launched a criminal investigation, but the perpetrators were never identified. The organization’s Phil Bradford told the media: “It is very serious and we would like to let anyone involved in anything like this know that it is serious and that we will take all steps to find out who is doing it. And once we have established that, we will ensure that the law is fully implemented.”
See “real” maximum headroom in action
Although the offense carried a maximum fine of $100,000 and jail time, the law had since changed Captain Midnight jams from HBO the previous year — multiple people have claimed the stunt over the years. 2010 a Redditor said He knew who did it and provided details he hoped were credible, though he refused to name everyone involved, just in case they ended up in court. He said he was in the company of brothers “J” and “K” that same evening and they suggested he tune in later on WTTW. What he saw convinced him that “this is the kind of humor J loved,” the Redditor wrote. “All of his jokes consistently contained something childish and/or sexually deviant. The video is a perfect reflection of J’s sense of humor in every way. Distracted, edgy and comically sexually deviant.”
A few years later, he found that both J and K were disfellowshipped for breaking the law. At the time, documentary filmmaker Chris Knittel had conducted an investigation and claimed that someone at FCC headquarters had more information than his boss would let on. “According to him, his hands were tied behind his back,” said Knittel. “He had, he thought, a credible idea of where they were broadcasting, where they were broadcasting their signal. But someone he didn’t want to name, especially who he worked with…didn’t want him to go and pursue that, didn’t want him knocking on doors. When asked why that was, he replied, “I don’t know.”
He added: “One area I didn’t fully explore was that there were many layoffs in the months leading up to the incident. To me it is most likely someone who is a former broadcaster in whatever capacity. But there is no hard evidence out there.”
Like the best conspiracy theories – and maybe like one Doctor Who Story in which the unsuspecting world will never know they were saved from destruction by an alien threat – the Max Headroom incident remains unsolved.
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