The Nights the Pirates Stole the Airwaves

Unidentified man wearing Max Headroom mask, as seen during the Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusion incident of November 22, 1987 in Chicago.

The eerie and creepy broadcast signal intrusion events were investigated by the FBI and the CIA. 

Today I am writing about a different kind of mystery.   Some of the unexplained mysteries all around us occur in nature.  Some are the result of the actions of man, accidentally, or as a by-product of his creations, mechanical or otherwise.  Some mysteries are created by man on purpose.  D. B. Cooper comes to mind.  There have been times bizarre waves have been known to emit over the broadcast airways, both radio and television.  Orson Welles comes to mind.

Have you ever been watching a broadcast when something awful and unexplained beams out at you from your TV screen?

I remember once when a new network was starting up in the region where I live and they were breaking in everyone, including the cameraman.  It was painful to watch, but I could not resist tuning in.  The cameraman had two cameras on the news anchor and as the anchor delivered the news, he zoomed in with the very camera she was not looking into. 

A left profile of her came up on my home screen.  She forced a smile and turned to look right into the profile camera just in time for the cameraman to switch to the other camera, and now I got the right profile.  She bravely kept her cool as this went on for several agonizing minutes.  It was time for a commercial break.  It was a longer break than usual, and when the anchor came back, the cameraman was able to keep the camera aimed directly at the anchor.

     The first week of the station’s debut was filled with these awkward moments.  Scenery and backdrops fell over on a regular basis.  Loud banging and crashing noises came through my TV speaker, as did the mild oaths of unseen people.  There were multitudes of bad camera angles and pieces of equipment that were supposed to be out of camera range appeared out of nowhere.

     I was actually viewing live when Captain Midnight hijacked the airwaves in April of 1986.   Who knew that was even possible?  It was creepy, but a tad exciting, as Captain Midnight pirated prime airtime to air his personal grievances over cable channels charging satellite dish owners.  Airwave piracy has now been given the name broadcast signal intrusion.  Captain Midnight was identified and charged a hefty fine.  Maybe this would deter others.

     There was another incident of airwave piracy that escaped my curious nature.  In 1987, in Chicago, the TV airwaves were interrupted twice in the same night.  During a sports highlights recap for the Bears on WGN, the broadcaster was interrupted by the insertion of a short video clip.  It was a parody of Max Headroom, a fictional spokesperson for Coca Cola that was very popular at the time. 

Two hours later a production of a Dr. Who drama on WTTW was interrupted by a longer video clip, again, a Max Headroom parody, this time, with sound.  The parody clips show a man in a rubber Max Headroom mask, suit and tie, gesturing wildly against a wavy diagonal moving background.  In the latter, he is spouting garbled gibberish.  The videos are eerie and unsettling.

     It is probable that the two clips are made by the same people—two people, at least—but what was their message and to whom was it aimed?  Was it just a silly prank?  The videos are very sophisticated and made with microwave broadcast equipment—something that could out-power and over-ride the microwave signals beaming from Hancock Tower.

     The videos are online and I have viewed both of them, but I had to dig for them.   One fellow thinks he has figured out the garbled gibberish and has put subtitles on them, for those interested.

     The broadcast signal intrusion events were investigated by the FBI and the CIA.  In all this time, there have been no suspects named, nor no one claiming credit for their handiwork.  They probably wouldn’t, as there would have been a fine of at least $100,000 (at the time,) and jail time.

     If you decide to look up these artistic and surreal videos I have some advice for you.  Warning!  The end of the second video, 2-3 seconds, (the one with audio) is not for the prudish.  You have been given the alert.  View at your own discretion.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of the award-winning Quite Curious, a collection of the bizarre and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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