OM216 - The Max Headroom Intrusion

This week, Ken and John talk about:

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Ken's opinion about computer hackers (OM216)

Ken does not have an opinion about computer hacking as a concept or a philosophy, but he is just annoyed by it because even as a computer programmer he is primarily a user of other people’s computers and can't just crack his knuckles back, twirl his fingers and start typing into a Mainframe command line to rewrite the encryption and find a backdoor into the C-shell. Ken associates hackers with incidents and pranks that makes his stuff not work, like malware, spyware, viruses and worms.

Culture jamming (OM216)

The idea behind culture jamming is that there is a mainstream culture that is exclusive and walled off and promotes and promulgates a certain ideology: The Status Quo or the Man. Culture jamming is the only way for those who are excluded from mainstream culture to gain access to the eyes and ears of the masses. This was a much more prevalent mentality before the Internet amplified any voice and now you can culture-jam just by starting a podcast, a Vlog, or a YouTube channel.

Even in today's world of incredibly proliferated channels with access to whomever you can attract, a controlled mainstream culture that is broadcasting a sophisticated ideology that has brainwashed the majority is still a common trope. That culture has a bad aesthetic, it is watered down, it is not good for us, it is gruel, and it is spoon-fed garbage that is mostly driven by the needs and desires of the advertising industry, which is the ultimate bad guy in our media world. This is also why public radio is the ultimate culture jamming because they are not beholden to advertisers.

In the 1970s/80s/90s there was an underground culture of people who were trying to subvert not only the dominant paradigm, but even some less dominant B- or C-level paradigms like the local level watered-down mealy-mouthed imitations of the global network of corporate media domination: Local news programs and ads by your local Pontiac dealer are crowing out their anarchist messages. It is a valid critique of the idea that there is a monolithic media. If you have the money, our advertising culture allows you to buy an ad on any local television program and put your Megachurch up there.

The idea of culture jamming was that exposing people to something radical that was outside of their comfort zone would be enough to shake the foundations of their tenuous grip on normality. One Agent Orange video or one snarky comment from a VJ from Iowa who arrived in Anchorage and didn't really understand or care about the local culture was going to be enough to radicalize somebody and turn them into an art consumer, or into somebody who was seeking out alternative history or a different side of politics, and that could change the world!

John working at Catch 22 music video TV in Anchorage (OM216)

John's first job at a television station was a bit of a culture jam (see Employment History). With the rise and popularity of MTV in the mid-1980s there was briefly an idea that there was room in the culture sphere for local 24-hour UHF music video stations and they opened in several locations around the country. In Anchorage it was called Catch 22 because it was broadcast on UHF channel 22. At the time there wasn’t really anything else on UHF and John had been looking at the UHF dial of their old TV, wondering what it was even there for.

Catch 22 opened to great local fanfare and had a 24-hour feed. They had acquired a library of music videos on standard VHS tapes, not those over-sized professional ones. They didn’t have all of the good music videos, but a lot of them were second rate. Still, they were getting new videos all the time because record companies were sending them out even to the local stations.

Richard Hadley was the program director of Catch 22 in Anchorage and he is now a listener of The Omnibus. He was a transplant from the great state of Iowa who was wondering what to do after having graduated from his corn agrarian college program. He was a member of the Rockabilly subculture and he moved to Anchorage with a good friend as part of their Western exploration. They were very colorful characters and pretty stylish dudes with Creepers and they bought a 1954 Chevy with only one headlight and showed up in Anchorage with their slicked-up pompadour haircuts. Somehow they got this job and started Catch 22, but they weren’t the business people behind it, but they were the first on-air personalities.

John was in High School when Catch 22 came on the air and he was wrapped with the idea! It wasn’t a good television station, but it was what they had all dreamed of: A local path to becoming a VJ, the greatest of all jobs. John had never done anything thing like this in life, but he wanted desperately to be a VJ on Catch 22 and he rode his bike there every day, sat in the lobby with a terrible VHS tape he had made, and the receptionist was exactly what you would imagine the receptionist of a startup television station in Anchorage Alaska would be: Young, vivacious and super-friendly, absolutely a WKRP (TV Show)-type situation.

She would tell John that Richard was busy and would see him in a minute, but Richard would always escape out a side door and she would tell John that he had left on an important mission. John would relentlessly come back the next day until Richard Hadley one day came out from his glass-walled office in the back. He had kept waiting for John to get tired and stop coming, but eventually he watched John’s video tape and offered him a job under the conditions that John never skipped school. If he would ever catch John skipping school he would be fired. Also, John’s face could never appear on air, but just his voice could.

John took the job and it quickly became clear that Richard had needed someone to do the overnight shifts because nobody wanted to do the 1am-8am shift at a local UHF television station. He probably shouldn’t have been having a High School junior at 16 years old doing it, but John did overnights on weekends where Richard had relegated the Country Music and the Rap shows, so John did 4 hours of Country and 4 hours of Rap on weekends.

In the mid-1980s this type of thing felt like the future and it felt like Catch 22 was culture-jamming. It was the first time anybody in Alaska had ever seen a Rockabilly person. Frank Harlan, an Anchorage Punk Rocker (see this article), had a fanzine about Punk Rock called Warning and every alternative kid in Anchorage scrambled to get a copy of it. He had a show called Bombshelter Videos where he played Punk Rock videos and even after Catch 22 fell apart Bombshelter Videos was on public access TV down there. He was a local subterranean media personality for a long time.

The only thing John knew about Rockabilly going in was the Stray Cats, but becoming friends with Richard he briefly knew the names of a couple of other Rockabilly bands that he has since forgotten. He did develop somewhat of an affection for that culture, but he never bought a pair of Creepers (a type of shoe) and it didn’t set him on a permanent path of rockabilly rebellion. John really liked Bluegrass, he also had to do the Bluegrass show, and he learned about the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He also liked Rap and doing the Rap show was actually pretty fun. He would get phone calls from people in the community requesting videos and he learned all about video production.

John was working at Catch 22 in his Senior year in High School and has an alibi for the Max Headroom Intrusion that happened in April of 1986. He also worked the night of his Senior Prom. He went to the senior ball with his date, went in a white limo to some parties after the dance, and then he said ”Good night!” to everybody, left his date in her ball gown at some party with his friends and went to work at Catch 22 and worked in his prom tuxedo, playing Kenny Rogers and Run DMC videos until 9am.

John did appear on camera several times when no-one was watching at 5am. He routinely turned the camera on, not for long because he didn’t want somebody to turn their VCR on and bust him, but he would show up on camera and say: ”Hey, you are watching Catch 22, Anchorage’s only music video station!” It was the John Roderick intrusion!

Anchorage Visions pre-cable TV transmissions (OM216)

In the 1980s Cable TV was not universally affordable for people and having a local music video station was an opportunity to have a free local MTV. Ken thought at the time that cable TV was a terrible idea because his grandparents had to have an extra box which was a hard pass for him!

Before wired cable was widely available there were only 4 stations on TV: ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. Then there was microwave-transmitted premium television, which in Anchorage was called Visions. It required a special antenna that wasn’t shaped like a dish, but like a corn cob up on a pole, and you could drive around Anchorage and tell which houses had Visions.

It was only one channel that had its own programming and would show something from HBO for a while and then a combination of first-run movies from Showtime. At night it would show softcore, like Cinemax. There was a genre of movies in the 1970s and 80s that had racy parts and terrible plots. You had to find actors who not only wanted to act, but were also willing to take their clothes off and simulate intercourse. There were probably not a lot of great actors who got their start there, but people who wanted to tell their mom and dad that they were an actor and hopefully their folks would never see their films. One film John remembers is The Great Texas Dynamite Chase.

Visions was a monthly subscription to get this corn cob antenna that they would put up on your roof and everyone in Anchorage would know that you had Visions. Briefly somebody in close proximity to John’s dad’s house had Visions and if you turned the analog dial of the TV that would normally click in place and balanced it between channel 13 and UHF, some amount of that microwave signal got into a regular antenna and John could watch Visions. This was the oldest John ever sounded to any listener.

Ken has a slideshow he does for Elementary Schools where he shows a game show playing on an old-timey TV, a 1980 Zenith or Magnivox, and the kids will literally ask why you would watch TV on a microwave because they have never seen a television set with wooden veneer and physical dials.

Visions in Anchorage, HBO, and Showtime were the first alternatives to regular television. It predated VCRs and for the first time in history you could watch movies in your house without waiting for it to show up with commercials on NBC Friday night movie. It is amazing to think that enough people wanted it and there was money to be made.

Hacking cable-boxes with the security key (OM216)

When Anchorage got cable TV, the set-top boxes came with a key to lock certain channels. You could have the Playboy channel, but keep your kids from watching it by pulling the key out so they could no longer see whatever channels you decided were off-limits. This is one of the great mysteries of John’s life, but within a very short amount of time the rumor went around John’s High School that if you take the security key out of the lock and stick it in the 4th vent hole from the left in the back of the box it would short-circuit it and you could get all the channels.

Maybe somebody had built in this back door deliberately and had told it to his younger cousin? Who knows why they did it! For two years every teenager in Anchorage could get all the channels and no-one ratted it out. It only required that your parents did not use the system, because if they took the key then the key was gone. The parents never knew about it, but it was the universal kid conspiracy to have free cable and John still marvels at it.


In the mid-1980s John had a terrible condition where he licked his fingers all the time and put hand-lotion on all the time. It was some puberty thing where his skin started peeling, it was awful.

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