KATV Broadcast Interruption of 1959
2023 April Fools' Day Entry
On April 1, 1959, the audio portion of the evening’s KATV news broadcast was overridden by a pirated signal in which someone claiming to be the late Civil War Union general and Arkansas governor Powell Clayton urged his listeners to change their ways to “avoid the disaster which threatens your state.” Now widely regarded as a hoax or prank, the broadcast interruption at the time fueled an array of segregationist conspiracy theories and sparked legislative threats to outlaw the medium of television in the state of Arkansas.
The broadcast of KATV’s 6:00 p.m. news segment began as usual that Wednesday night. Approximately three minutes into the news, while the newscasters were covering the latest events at the legislature, the audio portion of the broadcast devolved into heavy static, which was shortly replaced by a deep, breathy voice that relayed the following message in slow, patient speech, as if determined to be heard clearly:
“This is the voice of Powell Clayton, your former governor, speaking to you from the land beyond. I come to warn you of the destiny of Arkansas so that you may communicate to your fellow citizens the course you must take to avoid the disaster which threatens your state. This is in order that you may share in the great awakening, as Arkansas passes into a New Age. This New Age can be a time of great peace and evolution for you, but only if your rulers are made aware of the evil forces that can overshadow their judgments. Be still now and listen, for your chance may not come again. The time for conflict is now past, and the state of which you are a part may proceed to the higher stages of its evolution if you show yourselves worthy to do this. You have but a short time to learn to live together in peace and goodwill.”
At the end of this message, the audio portion of the program returned to normal, and later in the news segment, Robert Doubleday, the station manager, appeared on air to apologize for the signal interruption and promised viewers that the station would be investigating the source of the disturbance. Some viewers later recalled seeing the shadowy figure of the former governor superimposed upon the broadcast.
A later investigation by KATV engineers, state officials, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concluded that the most likely scenario by which the interruption was achieved was the use of a low-power transmitter to override the signal emanating from the KATV tower—which was near Jefferson (Jefferson County) at the time (a new tower would be completed in 1965 near the Jefferson County community of Redfield)—causing the intruding signal to be carried farther than it would have been on its own. According to the FCC report, a fair level of technical knowledge would be necessary to carry out the prank, although not more than might be obtained working at a college radio station. At the time, Arkansas had a few college radio stations, such as KUOA, based on the campus of John E. Brown College (now John Brown University) in Siloam Springs (Benton County), and during the course of the three-month investigation, federal authorities interviewed a number of students but were unable to develop any solid leads. To date, the perpetrators of the interruption remain unknown.
The broadcast interruption sparked a fierce reaction by people in the state. According to historian Michael B. Dougan, the message attributed to Powell Clayton, despite the promise of peace and harmony it offered, seemed explicitly designed to offend the sensibilities of most Arkansans. First, there was the placement of this message in the mouth of a ghostly Powell Clayton, whose name was still being evoked by adherents of Lost Cause mythology “as a shorthand for the miseries forced upon Arkansas by greedy outsiders.” Indeed, in the same year as this broadcast interruption, Governor Orval Faubus vetoed a legislative resolution changing the name of Toad Suck Ferry to Ashmore Landing (after newspaper editor Harry Ashmore), saying, “In my judgment, many people of the state would consider the renaming of the Ferry as an act that would defame a well-known landing by naming it for a man regarded by many as the state’s greatest renegade since Powell Clayton.” Second are the references to evolution. As Dougan wrote, “Apparently, the spirit of this great carpetbagger was unaware that the state had, in 1928, outlawed the teaching of evolutionary theory in Arkansas classrooms—and, consequently, made evolution itself practically impossible.”
Despite officials with KATV immediately proclaiming the interruption some kind of prank, the week following the alleged Clayton broadcast saw ammunition and guns selling fiercely; one member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, quoted in the New York Times, even proclaimed the interruption “the first shot of an inevitable Yankee re-invasion of America.” Thousands of people called or wrote in to KATV headquarters to complain, and station manager Doubleday, as well as various on-air personalities, were forced to hire bodyguards due to a public perception that the station itself was promoting a pro-civil rights agenda. Attorney General Bruce Bennett expressed what was perhaps the prevailing viewpoint among the state’s entrenched Democratic Party machine when he blamed the interruption on “communists, plain and simple.”
During the 1959 legislative session (happening at about the same time the ghostly broadcast aired), the Arkansas General Assembly had passed a number of bills, which Governor Faubus later signed into law, designed to foster segregation and weaken the ability of civil rights organizations to recruit members and advocate for change. For example, Act 115 specifically made it illegal for members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to be employed by the state. The very next day after the Powell Clayton broadcast interruption, Faubus signed into law a bill requiring that blood banks label donations by race. The broadcast interruption, thus, found state legislators and Faubus in a fighting mood, and Representative N. B. Murphy of Ashley County, who had sponsored the blood-labeling bill, demanded that Faubus call a special session of the legislature “so that we can do something about these newfangled televisions broadcasting communist propaganda from beyond the grave.” Faubus himself threatened to do exactly that should there be another broadcast interruption. He also suggested that legislators should consider banning instruction in telecommunications at the college level in Arkansas, in addition to making it illegal for public libraries in the state to offer books on radio and television.
KATV and other television stations invested heavily to increase the security of their transmission towers. In the end, although the event attracted national attention and produced a federal investigation, little came of the broadcast interruption in the state of Arkansas. However, the affair seems to have inspired a few copycats during the coming decades—and may have directly influenced the first major interruption to follow it. On November 26, 1977, the audio portion of the Southern Television news broadcast in parts of England was replaced by a voice claiming to be Vrillon, a representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command, who urged his listeners to “learn to live together in peace and goodwill” so that planet Earth might evade disaster as it passed into the Age of Aquarius. In fact, the Southern Television interruption used much of the same language as the KATV incident but expanded upon the message relayed, emphasizing the coming judgment by galactic entities and exhibiting a New Age philosophy. Most famous, however, was the November 22, 1987, signal hijacking of two stations in Chicago, Illinois, by someone wearing a Max Headroom costume. Despite its brief duration, the 1987 event achieved great notoriety given the bizarre content of the broadcast, which at one point featured an individual’s bare buttocks being spanked by a flyswatter-wielding woman.
For additional information:
Dougan, Michael B. “Apparatus Interruptus: The Day Governor Powell Clayton Spoke from the Great Beyond.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 70 (Winter 2011): 468–483.
Final Report on April 1, 1959, KATV Broadcast Interruption. Washington DC: Federal Communications Commission, 1961.
Poindexter, Ray. Arkansas Airwaves. North Little Rock, AR: 1974.
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