It happened 30 years ago, on November 22, 1987, and lasted one minute and 22 seconds.
To this day, no one knows who did it.
At 11:15 p.m., the PBS affiliate WWTW in Chicago — Channel 11 for locals — was airing a Doctor Who episode titled “The Horror of Fang Rock.” Suddenly, the video cut out.
After a few seconds, a figure appeared — a man, wearing a Max Headroom rubber mask. Headroom was a fictional artificial intelligence character known for his wit delivered in a stuttering, electronic voice. He was huge back then: Max (pictured below) had his own movie, his own TV show, but most people remember him from his gig as a spokesman for New Coke.
But this guy looked creepier — much creepier (see for yourself below).
Throughout the 1:22 that the mysterious hacker controlled the airwaves, the creepy figure bobbed up and down as the background rotated. Through the static he said: “That does it. He’s a fricken nerd.” (See video at bottom.)
He laughed in a sinister way. He rambled a bit, his words sometimes unintelligible. Then he held up a can of Pepsi and uttered the Coca-Cola slogan “catch the wave.”
Then he went full creep, and ati.com details the rest.
The figure flashed the finger at the camera, his middle finger covered in a rubber extension. He sang “your love is fading,” lyrics to “(I Know) I’m Losing You” by the Temptations. He hummed tunelessly. He muttered phrases from television shows. He screamed nonsense and then he began to moan.
After a moment, he paused to claim he had “made a giant masterpiece for all the greatest world newspaper nerds,” referencing WGN’s acronym and corporate parent the Chicago Tribune.
Then, he held up a glove, like the one popularized by Michael Jackson and exclaimed: “my brother is wearing the other one” before pulling it on and saying “But it’s dirty! It’s like you got bloodstains on it!”
The camera then cut to a shot of a man’s torso and partially exposed buttocks. The Max Headroom mask had been removed and was being held up to the camera. The rubber extension that had covered the figures finger was stuffed inside the mouth of the mask.
“They’re coming to get me!” the man screamed suddenly.
“Bend over, bitch,” a female voice responded. The man was then spanked repeatedly with a flyswatter as he screamed.
It was actually the second time the hacker had broken in that night. At 9:15 p.m., he had controlled the airwaves for 30 seconds, but without audio.
Afterward, station officials said the reason the hacker could break in was because there were no engineers on duty at the WTTW transmitter tower. And the only copies of the hack were held by those with a fancy, fairly new technology — the video cassette recorder (VCR).
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was furious and started an full investigation — even offering an award for information about the hacker. “I would like to inform anybody involved in this kinda thing, that there’s a maximum penalty of $100,000, one-year in jail, or both,” said Phil Bradford, an FCC spokesman.
And the FCC did eventually figure out how it was all done.
By placing his or her own dish antenna between the transmitter tower, the hacker could have effectively interrupted the original signal. They wouldn’t even have needed expensive equipment, just good timing and positioning.
They were also able to pinpoint a location where the video might have been shot. Based on the background of the videos, agents from the FCC determined it was most likely the roll down door of a warehouse and tracked it to a district that had warehouses with doors like it.
But no one ever found out the identity of the hacker.
So if you're out there, hacker man, it's been 30 years. Step forward and take credit!