My initiation to the subject of Peoples Temple was followed closely by my exposure to the controversy and misinformation surrounding the pieces of tangible evidence that remain from the life of the Jonestown settlement and, especially, from that final, terrible day. Archive.org was the first place I ran across a copy of and discussion about the infamous Q042 tape, or as it is better known, the “death tape.” I was shocked – and in many cases appalled – at the lack of understanding shown in many of the posts. After listening to the digital version of the tape available on the site, I was especially dismayed that several people discount it as a fake because the documentaries they had seen “did not have that music in the background” or the sound in the documentaries was clearer and better than in the tape. These same people are also convinced that Jonestown was controlled by the CIA, and of the facts surrounding the massacre and the actual purpose of the Jonestown settlement have been covered up.
In the midst of all that ridiculousness, something caught my attention – the “background music” comment. It drew my focus because I recognized the “background music” for what it truly was immediately. In fact, I had personal experience with it.
My father is a producer. Now he works in corporate communications, but for most of my life he was a news producer. Perhaps that is why I always had a yearning for the stage. Like most budding performers, nothing enamored me more than the sound of my own voice. As a child, I spent hours recording “radio plays” in which I played every character. I recorded these over and over on audio tapes. One day, I complained to my dad that my tapes were sounding sort of “busy” – faintly but very distinctly, I could hear things I had previously recorded in the background of new recordings.
My dad had me gather up all my tapes and we took them to the engineering department at his television station. There, he brought out what looked to me like a metal box with a handle. He gave me his watch and had me stand across the room. He plugged the box in, and one by one, he ran it over my tapes on both sides. When he had finished, he slipped one into a tape player. All the recording was gone. There was only the hiss of blank tape.
What I had been hearing, he explained, was something he called “ghost audio.” When you record over something, the audio from what you have recorded over sticks around, creating “ghosts” in your new recording. The metal box was actually a large electro-magnet. That “wipes” the tapes clean. Sound engineers used this technique extensively in the days when Dictaphone or walkman-type recorders were used for interviews. It was less expensive to wipe the tapes for reuse instead of buying new tapes.
Perhaps an unintended consequence of this is that there is much more video than audio of historical events. The audio you often hear in retrospective television programs of history-making moments usually comes from “sound bites,” bits of audio which may once have been on tape but which have been “preserved” through their use in an intervening video.
Programs of this type may also use what production calls “nats sound,” that is, the natural sound coming from around the event such as wind, birds, or other environmental noise. A good example of “nats” is employed by shows like 48 Hours and Dateline: the ubiquitous shot of a bulldozer digging into a grave accompanied by the audio of a diesel engine chugging, while a voice-over tells us how someone’s body must be exhumed to help solve their disputed death. As is the case with one controversial tape that ostensibly recorded the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the actual gunshots are “nats sound” heard over a police radio. Because it is essentially beefed-up ambient noise “nats” can be notoriously unreliable and difficult to decipher which – in the Kennedy case – led to the dispute over the number of shots fired. The problem is that the original sound is often unsatisfactory, due to distortion, poor quality, distance from the open microphone on a camera held by a news reporter, or on a police radio. Oftentimes it is “chatter” – crowd noise or nearby conversation that is not quite discernable and distinct – or “garbage,” such as wind across the microphone, heavy breathing by the camera operator from running, “mike rub” from clothing or skin, and static.
As with “chatter” and “garbage,” any ghosts that are present on the tape are edited out before a piece of audio is used for broadcast. Any good sound engineer whose name appears in the credits on a television show or movie will clean up old cassettes so the main recording is pristine and clearly heard. In addition, the source audio is rarely heard in its entirety, and may be edited into a new sequence of order to form a cohesive narrative in the program to illustrate points made and put the audio and footage into context. Tapes are edited for a myriad of other reasons as well, including to remove elements of dialogue which have no narrative context in the program or – as is the case with Q042 – which is deemed too disturbing for viewers or listeners.
After hearing the raw tape, I listened to the internet stream of the 1981 broadcast of Father Cares from NPR. In the program, when Jim speaks over the ham radio in regard to what to do about John Victor Stoen and the child custody battle. If you listen very carefully, you can hear one of the “ghost” conversations, including some of the phrases mentioned in at least one of the analysis of the “death tape.” You can clearly hear the radio operator saying, “We do read you and we will (will not?) stand…” and Jones’ reply “Don’t lie to me now…”, as well as “Do you copy?”, which I myself could hear clearly on the final tape (listening through noise canceling headphones and on a laptop). The voice in the Stoen discussion and the one in the “ghost” on the final tape were immediately recognizable to me as the same person.
Another “ghost” that haunts the death tape – so ably analyzed by Josef Dieckman in his article One Misconception Down, Countless to Go – concerns the music on the “death tape.” It was so refreshing to see someone who took the time to investigate and understand the anomaly of the tape instead of blindly assuming they were being misled.
People also point to the numerous stops and starts in the tapes as proof that they are not authentic. Other audio cassettes that have been conclusively authenticated as coming from Peoples Temple have the same types of what texts on the subject call “heavy edits,” the audible thump that is the hallmark of a stop of the recording device. In fact both heavy edits and ghost audio can be heard extensively on nearly all Temple tapes that are available. Speculatively, someone could use these edits to “script” a comment and record it over an ad-lib or to hide something incriminating or secretive on the tape. However, there is another very common cause of heavy edits: the use of a Dictaphone-type audio recorder. These recorders are voice activated and stop – or in some cases turn themselves off – when no one is speaking into the microphone.
For those who would rely upon the use of heavy edits and ghost audio as proof of a cover-up or misinformation, I would argue that they demonstrate just the opposite: The Peoples Temple tapes are raw, unedited, and recorded on the fly, with their bumps and bruises intact for all to hear. It is the recording of history as its most basic and profound.
(Amanda Veazey’s other article in this edition of the jonestown report is Oprah! She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)