FCC Investigation of Peoples Temple

The principal link that Jonestown had with the outside world on a daily basis was its shortwave radio. Beginning in 1977 and throughout most of 1978, the Federal Communications Commission, which had granted the amateur radio licenses to the Temple and which had the power to revoke the licenses, investigated violations of agency regulations. The Temple viewed the potential disruption of communication as a threat to its existence and – as the Jonestown community felt the effects of its increasing isolation – as evidence of an orchestrated conspiracy against it.

These elements appear in a letter that San Francisco attorney Michael Snedeker wrote to the FCC urging the agency to resolve the issues under investigation in favor of the Temple licensee Elton Adams. While the letter is undated, the FCC’s investigation of the Adams license was not launched until the spring of 1978.

The plea to the FCC was not successful. On August 10, 1978, the agency wrote to remind Adams that his license was for an amateur radio station and that business communications were prohibited under that license. “[T]he normal day-to-day administrative details of operating the missionary outpost of Peoples Temple … has previously been interpreted by the Commission as constituting the regular business affairs of a charitable organization,” the letter continued, and further use of the radio for such purposes “could result in the imposition of enforcement sanctions such as monetary forfeiture, or, if necessary, revocation and/or cease and desist proceedings.”

The issues had not been completely resolved three months later when Congressman Leo Ryan left for Guyana.

Michael Snedeker letter to FCC, RYMUR 89-4286-MM-4-7

FCC letter to Elton Adams, August 10, 1978, RYMUR 89-4286-MM-4-8a – MM-4-8k

An analysis of the FCC investigation of Peoples Temple use of its shortwave radio, adapted from A Sympathetic History of Peoples Temple and Jonestown by Rebecca Moore, appears below. The full text of the chapter from which the analysis was taken appears here.

The major link that Jonestown had with the outside world was the shortwave radio. Peoples Temple radio conversations ranged from the subjects of continuing education and licensing for R.N.’s an x-ray machine and electric sterilizer, to red T-shirts, beehives, training cassettes about farm animals, and tractor parts. The content was often more political, with drafts of press releases or public statements communicated from one continent to the other. The group’s public “Response” to the Concerned Relatives’ “Accusation,” for example, was dictated from Guyana over the radio.

Because the amateur radio service is a public medium, anyone could listen in to Peoples Temple radio transmissions. And just about everybody did, including the Federal Communications Commission.

Beginning in April 1977, and for more than a year afterwards, the FCC monitored Temple radio activity closely. By November 1978, the Commission had logged between forty and sixty hours of conversation. After November 18, it turned over 25 cassettes and four reels of tape to a federal grand jury. In the meantime, it had assessed fines against Temple operators and sent further notices of rules violations in March, April, May and October 1978.

The FCC cited Temple licensee Ben Bowers with using a code, operating out of the authorized frequency, and failing to give his call letters at ten minute intervals. Additionally, the agency charged Bowers with conducting business communications. Over a year later, the FCC warned another Temple amateur, Elton Adams, against carrying on business traffic, that is, “any transmission or communication the purpose of which is to facilitate the regular business or commercial affairs of any party.”

Peoples Temple felt the violations were both minor and justified. Although it did not solicit funds or attempt to defraud anyone, it did go out-of-band for private conversations, it did fail to give the call letters with required regularity, it did allow unlicensed people to use the radio, and it did use codes for transmissions. The people in Jonestown, Georgetown and San Francisco believed the importance of their work mitigated these infractions. They wrote to the FCC in May 1978:

Ham radio communication is essential to our work, and we cannot understand why it is allowed to be disrupted … The need for radio contact is indisputable. The growth of the Project is phenomenal, and planning for the agricultural, medical, educational, and even industrial needs of Jonestown is underway on the radio almost daily.

The FCC drew a clear distinction between emergency traffic and regular business traffic. In April 1978, a year after the agency had first begun to intercept the church’s radio communications, the Commission clarified its guidelines on phone patches and on third-party business communications. The clarification made no distinction between profit-making and charitable organizations: a commercial message was a commercial message, regardless of who made it.

That August, the Commission made its position on Peoples Temple explicit when it advised Elton Adams that:

The communications involving your radio station related to the normal day-to-day administrative details of operating the missionary outpost of People’s Temple. This type of communication has previously been interpreted by the Commission as constituting the regular business affairs of a charitable organization …

You are therefore advised that the use of your radio station to facilitate the administrative and operating functions of the Peoples Temple missionary outpost are prohibited third party communications.

The letter concluded with the warning that if business transmissions continued, “enforcement sanctions such as monetary forfeiture, or, if necessary, revocation and/or cease and desist proceedings” could result. Peoples Temple viewed this letter as unwarranted interference and, worse, as a threat to its existence.