Broadcast Signal Intrusions: When TV or Radio Stations Get Hacked
Orson Welles' contrived The War of the Worlds news bulletin “interrupted” a radio broadcast in 1938 to advise terrified listeners that aliens had invaded the Earth. As many as 12 million people were tuned in, according to NPR – and perhaps a million of them apparently worried that it was actually happening.
We've gained historical perspective on the stunt, even while the way we consume media has vastly changed over the decades that followed. Critics would later downplay the impact of The War of the Worlds, with some arguing that newspapers purposely over-sensationalized the broadcast to cast doubts on the trustworthiness of then-new technology that was siphoning off ad revenue.
What's clear is that signal intrusions – including unauthorized hijacking of radio, television or satellite feeds – have continued ever since. They've served a variety of purposes, as you'll see on the following list. Many were a form of political protest, while others were just looking to have a little fun. All of them trace back in some way to Welles' fateful “interruption.”
Southern Television Broadcast
Nov. 26, 1977, England
Viewers of an early evening Southern Television broadcast in England were alarmed when an electronic voice purported to represent the “Ashtar Galactic Command” overtook the audio of a news segment for a full six minutes. The message, which was accompanied by a pulsating sound and eerie distortions, said: “For many years, you have seen us as lights in the sky. We speak to you now in peace and wisdom as we have done to your brothers and sisters all over this, your planet Earth.” This strange voice went on to advise humanity to “abandon its weapons” in order to participate in a “future awakening” and “achieve a higher state of evolution.” It also warned viewers that government officials weren’t who they claimed to be, and that they were leading the unwitting public into a New World Order. The hack ended with a final message: “Have no fear, seek only to know yourselves, and live in harmony with the ways of your planet Earth. We hear at the Ashtar Galactic Command thank you for your attention. We are now leaving the planes of your existence. May you be blessed by the supreme love and truth of the cosmos.” The interruption prompted a flood of phone calls from an understandably concerned audience then living under the threat of Cold War. A local newspaper said “thousands” of viewers were horrified; one man described the experience as “very eerie indeed” and said it “sounded very authentic.” A woman said she had to call her friends to make sure she wasn’t “hearing things,” adding that “it sounded like a genuine voice from outer space and was quite frightening.” An investigation revealed the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s Hannington transmitter had rebroadcast the signal from a nearby, unauthorized transmitter. The mastermind behind it all was never identified.
September 1985, Poland
Poland was under martial law throughout the '80s as Communist government officials sought to repress the independent Solidarity trade union. In the run-up to a national election, four astronomers from the University of Toruń used nothing more than a home computer, a synchronizing circuit and a transmitter to superimpose messages in support of the country's labor movement over local state-run television broadcasts. One message said: "Enough price increases, lies and repressions. Solidarity Toruń," while another argued that "it is our duty to boycott the election." The four men responsible were eventually discovered and charged with possession of an unlicensed radio transmitter and publication of materials that could cause public unrest. A judge noted their prize-winning work in the Polish scientific community during sentencing, and gave each probation and a fine equivalent to $100. There is no known recording of the hijacked transmission.
April 27, 1986, U.S.
In 1985, HBO became the first pay-television service to require a descrambler box for viewing – and that frustrated many, including satellite-dish owner John R. MacDougall. He decided to mount a protest against the rates that owners then had to pay for a subscription to HBO, as they had previously enjoyed unfettered access to the channel. But there was also something of a personal score to settle: MacDougall’s satellite business had also seen a significant decline as a result of the decision. He'd been forced to obtain a second job with Central Florida Teleport, where he manned the satellite uplinks for cable providers. That gave MacDougall an opportunity to hijack HBO’s signal for four-and-a-half minutes under the pseudonym Captain Midnight. He set a message against a test pattern that read: “Good evening HBO from Captain Midnight. $12.95/month? No way!” An investigation led back to MacDougall after the FCC identified transmitters and stations equipped with the specific character generator used during the broadcast signal intrusion. He surrendered to authorities, then struck a plea bargain that included a $5,000 fine, one year of unsupervised probation and a one-year suspension of his amateur radio license. Congress later passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which made satellite hijacking a felony.
Nov. 22, 1987, Chicago
Television viewers in Chicago got more than they bargained for when the signals of two separate stations in the city were hijacked by an unidentified person wearing a Max Headroom mask. The first incident happened on WGN’s 9 p.m. newscast when the mask-wearing individual swayed erratically on screen for 30 seconds, accompanied only by a loud buzz. The intrusion was cut off when WGN engineers changed the frequency of the signal linking the broadcast studio to the station's transmitter. The other incident took place about two hours later on PBS-affiliate WTTW, as a masked person was heard discussing a number of seemingly random topics. The approximately 90-second interruption bafflingly concluded with a side view of someone getting spanked by a flyswatter. WTTW technicians were reportedly powerless to counteract the signal takeover because there were no engineers on duty at that time of night at the Sears Tower, where the station's broadcast equipment was located. The FCC launched a criminal investigation but never identified the culprits. No one has claimed responsibility, either.
The Playboy Channel
Sept. 6, 1987, U.S.
Was an employee of a faith-based organization behind the text message that hijacked a Playboy Channel movie? The FCC argued that its religious content – “Thus sayeth the Lord thy God: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” – and the type of equipment used initially pointed investigators in the direction of the Christian Broadcasting Network and staffer Thomas Haynie. The CBN refuted their claim, despite the fact that Haynie was working at the exact time that the message was transmitted. The network said they didn't have the necessary power to jam Playboy's satellite signal, that the signal couldn't be traced to a point of origin and that there were no witnesses to provide additional information. Their self-assessment conflicted with government witnesses, however, who stated CBN actually had the technical capabilities to interfere. A jury initially deadlocked on the charges, before siding with the prosecution. Haynie was convicted on two of six counts, making him the first person convicted of satellite piracy under a federal law that was put in place following the Captain Midnight incident. He was sentenced to three years of probation, a $1,000 fine and 150 hours of community service.
2000s-2010s, U.S. and Senegal
Viewers normally have to rather deliberately seek out adult programming, but a handful of hacking incidents shocked unwitting viewers. For instance, an employee of KPPX-TV in Phoenix, Ariz., inserted about 30 seconds of an adult film into a March 2007 rebroadcast of an NBC special on healthcare. Parent company Ion Media Networks conducted an investigation into what they called "an intolerable act of human sabotage," and shortly thereafter announced that the responsible employee was fired. Another incident took place in February 2009, when NBC affiliate KVOA saw its signal disrupted by footage from an adult film during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Approximately two years later, Frank Tanori Gonzalez was arrested over his involvement in the case. He subsequently pled guilty to two counts of computer tampering and was sentenced to three years probation, and paid a $1,000 fine to the Arizona attorney general's anti-racketeering fund. Comcast provided a $10 credit to its 80,000 subscribers in the region, whether they witnessed the scene or not. In March 2017, hackers broadcast pornographic content for approximately 15 minutes on Touba TV, an Islamic channel in Senegal. Management condemned the sabotage, referring to the incident in a statement as a "satanic trick."
2000s-2010s, Middle East
State-sponsored signal intrusions aren't terribly common but that's precisely what happened when Israel overtook the satellite transmission of Hezbollah's Al Manar TV to broadcast anti-Hezbollah propaganda. One of the hijacked spots showed a photo of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah with superimposed crosshairs, ominously followed by three gunshots and a voice that proclaimed, "Your day is coming." The hijack also reportedly showed images of Hezbollah fighters with a text that claimed Nasrallah was hiding his forces' losses. Meanwhile, an Israeli television station's signal was hijacked approximately eight years later by Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Palestinian political organization Hamas. In the few minutes they had control of the feed, the soldiers broadcasted images of wounded civilians and propaganda directed at Israeli citizens. Then on March 11, 2016, private satellite dish owners in Israel watching HaAh HaGadol – the Israeli version of Big Brother – saw their show interrupted by propaganda videos from Hamas, a disruption that lasted a little over three-and-a-half minutes.
Falun Gong Hacks Chinese television
September 2002, China
China-based Falun Gong hacked one of the country’s primary television satellites over a three-day span, seizing the opportunity to broadcast propaganda promoting the outlawed movement. Most of China Central Television's 10 channels and 10 other provincial channels carried on the Sinosat-1 satellite were interrupted with the pro-Falun Gong messages, which reportedly lasted anywhere from seconds to minutes. At the time, Chinese officials could not explain how Falun Gong followers could have intercepted satellite TV signals, but the incidents proved embarrassing for the Chinese government. They called the protest videos "reactionary propaganda" and said they threatened the country's social stability.
WBAB/WBLI Radio Station Disruptions
May 17, 2006, New York
One of the most nefarious signal hijackings in history took place on an FM radio station in Babylon, N.Y., when a track by white-supremacist country singer Johnny Rebel was broadcast on WBAB for approximately 90 seconds. Morning host Roger Luce immediately decried the incident on air: “Whatever that was – it was very racist. [In] 22 years at this radio station, I've never seen anything like this.” A media frenzy of sorts ensued in the wake of the incident. Program director John Olsen told Newsday that the station’s technicians had been powerless to block the pirate transmission. The illegal broadcast followed a hijacking with the very same song about two weeks before on WBAB's sister station WBLI. The broadcasters were so determined to get to the bottom of the situation that they offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the guilty party. “This is not some child’s prank. This is a federal offense,” management said in a statement. “We condemn their actions and their harmful words, are asking for a full investigation into this matter by the FCC, and are contacting local authorities to assist us into finding out who did this.” Nevertheless, whoever was behind this incident was never caught.
Strange Channel 7 Message
Jan. 3, 2007, Australia
An audio signal repeating "Jesus Christ, help us all, Lord," spoken in a distinctly American accent, disrupted an Australian broadcast of the television series Air Crash Investigation for a total of six minutes. A spokesman for the Seven Network denied the transmission was a prank or breach, but confusingly maintained that the repeated line said "Jesus Christ, one of the Nazarenes," despite the lack of similarity between the two phrases. An ensuing investigation carried out by independent researchers determined that audio for this rogue transmission was taken from a videotaped news broadcast of a civilian truck being ambushed in the Iraq War, but it failed to determine whether it was an act of piracy or a technical glitch.
Nuclear Armageddon in Europe?
June 2007, Czech Republic
A rather shocking signal intrusion took place during an otherwise innocuous Czech television program responsible for broadcasting scenic views of various locales across the country. One of the cameras used for the broadcast was evidently tampered with on-site and its video stream was replaced with a CGI-generated image of a small nuclear explosion in the distance. The broadcast looked frighteningly authentic but some eagle-eyed viewers noticed the inclusion of a website address for the artistic group Ztohoven, which claimed responsibility for the act. The aim of the disruption, according to the group, was to show how “reality could be manipulated by the media.” Ztohoven said it had been involved in similar undertakings in the past. Criminal charges were filed against seven members of the collective, but they were subsequently acquitted.
Feb. 11, 2013, Montana
The Emergency Alert System for a CBS affiliate in Great Falls, Mont., was hijacked with an audio message warning that "the bodies of the dead are rising from their graves and attacking the living." In a message to viewers, KRTV cautioned that "the message did not come from our station, and appears to be the result of a hacker. Our engineers are looking into the origin of the alert to make sure a similar occurrence does not happen again." Later that night, the same type of hijacking and reference to a zombie invasion was made in Marquette, Mich., and then again during the early morning hours in La Crosse, Wis., on CBS affiliate WKBT-DT, ABC affiliate WBUP and PBS member station WNMU. Shortly afterward, PBS affiliate KENW of Portales, N.M., was struck with a similar hacking incident which repeated the same message. The hacker apparently used an unsecured so-called back door to access the stations' Emergency Alert Systems, and was caught the day after the attacks were unleashed.
Radio Station Plays Obscene Song
July 2017, United Kingdom
A radio station in the U.K. was hijacked an astounding eight times in the span of one month, as a hacker was heard talking, screaming or singing and then playing "The Winker's Song," a bawdy track by British comedian Ivor Biggun. U.K.'s communications regulator Ofcom said it was taking the incident "extremely seriously," and engineers were working closely with the impacted radio station to trace and identify the pirate. At the time, the managing director of Mansfield 103.2 said "there is absolutely nothing we could do about it and we’re trying very hard to do something about it. We are told by Ofcom who are investigating the matter, that you only need, and this is the frightening thing, a small transmitter and if you can get near where there is an outside broadcast or a signal and you can overpower that signal [and] you’re on the airwaves.” Investigators never identified whoever was behind the hijacking.
Ominous Emergency Alert Warns of Impending Doom
September 2017, California
Television viewers in Southern California's Orange County were shocked when an emergency alert appeared on screen accompanied by a voice warning viewers of the impending end of the world just two days later. “Realize this, extremely violent times will come,” a man’s voice boomed during the broadcast. We now know the prediction wasn't accurate, of course, but the message initially unsettled viewers. A spokesperson for Cox Communications attributed the problem to one or more radio stations conducting an emergency test. While cable systems typically pick up such alerts, it's unclear how the alternate audio could have found its way into a separate broadcast. Cable providers investigated the incident, but they couldn't explain the origination of this specific audio feed.
Russian Signal Intrusions / UVB-76
Through the '20s, Russia
Broadcast signal intrusions were actually fairly common in the Soviet Union during the '70s and '80’s, primarily due to the demand for non-government affiliated broadcasting. In the mid-'70s, there were so many broadcast pirates in operation that local people were urged to phone in reports of signal violations to a specific telephone number. Even though the incidents appear to have been fairly common, most weren’t publicly acknowledged. One newspaper report referred to the hijackers as “hooligans broadcasting drivel, rudeness, vulgarity, uncensored expressions and trashy music.” The dissolution of the USSR didn’t stop these intrusions. In fact, the most recent incident took place in early 2022, just prior to Russia's invasion of the Ukraine. Pirates spammed UVB-76, a Soviet-era shortwave radio station that many believe serves as a communication method for Russian intelligence. The spam included a broadcast of one-hit wonder Psy's song “Gangnam Style” and specific audio frequencies that drew memes when inspected under a spectrum analyzer. A live feed of UVB-76 can be found on YouTube.
Invasion of Ukraine
Since 2022, Russia
Russia has seen a number of incidents driven by groups and interests voicing their opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. The hacker group Anonymous took over several pro-Kremlin TV channels on Feb. 26, 2022, including Channel One Russia and Russia-1, as part of a cyber offensive. In addition to showing combat footage, they broadcast a poem speaking out against the war that was written by Ukrainian singer-songwriter Monatik. Television listings throughout the country were then hacked to display anti-war messages and information tying Russian leader Vladimir Putin to war crimes. This intrusion took place on May 9 during Victory Day parade in Moscow, a holiday that commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The same messages also appeared on Yandex, which operates the country’s most popular internet-search engine, and the Russian equivalent of YouTube.
State Television Hacked
October 2022, Iran
In the midst of a social uprising, Iran's state-run broadcaster was hacked by a bulletin that served as a protest against the country's supreme leader. The incident showed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attending a meeting, but was interrupted with a video of a cartoon mask with a beard and heavy brows against a black backdrop. That was followed by an image of the leader enveloped by CGI-generated flames and captions that read "join us and rise up," while another said "the blood of our youths is on your hands." This movement was ignited by the murder of an Iranian citizen who died while in custody of the country's morality police. The interruption lasted less than 30 seconds before being cut off, but was seen as incredibly controversial in a country where acts of public rebellion or dissent are rare. A group calling itself Adalat Ali, or Ali's Justice, claimed responsibility. The group posted the clip on their social media account saying: “On the request of people, we fulfilled our promise and did the unthinkable to free Iran.”