Reclaiming Jonestown’s Inheritance

The Jonestown tragedy bequeathed an inheritance, a legacy to the world, something tangible, something that just might provide new clues and insights into the big questions surrounding the enigma that is Jim Jones, his apparent paranoia, and of course, the last and Whitest White Night of all, on November 18th 1978.

This inheritance is given to us in the form of hundreds of hours of recordings. The haul apparently contained a large batch of open-reel tapes, and an equally enormous collection of cassettes. FBI agents had to listen to all 971 of them. It wasn’t just one poor guy who had been cheeky to the boss, but rather a whole team that was assembled and split up the recordings among them.

But this was the motivating force – the only force – behind the FBI’s investigation: They listened to the tapes only to establish whether they contained evidence specific to the deaths of the party traveling with Congressman Leo J. Ryan at Port Kaituma. As a result, a great deal of their reports apparently contain nothing of interest, usually ending with the Joe Friday-esque language, “This tape was reviewed, and nothing was contained thereon which was considered to be of evidentiary nature or beneficial to the investigation of Congressman RYAN.”

Think about that last statement for a moment. These cool dudes in the shades and sharp suits are only listening for anything that relates in any way to poor Congressman Leo Ryan and the murders. This is very similar to the White House “transcripts” that Nixon released in 1973; remember those huge sections blacked out with an enormous Magic Marker?

As for what that overall process did to Jonestown’s legacy bequeathed to the world? We’re lucky history got anything at all, when you consider the agents were zipping through dozens of one- or two-hour tapes, tapes that had been treated in Jonestown merely as utilitarian tools without any special regard – which in fact was the case – tapes which were horribly used, re-used and re-used again. And when they were new, a large percentage of them were crappy no-name generic bargain store rubbish. Finally (okay, I am getting really picky now, but please forgive me, my background is audio/video/computer/media) these tapes were being used in the jungle. Let’s just say that humidity does terrible things to magnetic tape.

Now – slowly, slowly – the tapes are being wisely converted into digital form, as 128Kbps MP3 files. Not so good for music on yer iPod, but Rolls Royce and red carpet for simple speech recordings.

There are two DVDs containing about 150 of these tapes – Transcribed and Un-transcribed. I have concentrated on the latter, since most of this material has not been played in 30 years. The last ears to actually have listened to these recordings may well be have been Special Agent Name Deleted.

I have dived in and randomly played a good few hours of Reverend and Comrade Jim, and found that the quality of the recordings are as you might expect, given that bit of a lecture a couple of paragraphs ago. Some are in one channel only, with perhaps an annoying buzzing coming from the other channel. There is heavy distortion, print-through, speed fluctuations, and, of course, the hidden sounds buried in hiss, rumble, and all manner of nasties.

In my audio playtime, I use an excellent PC audio software application called Acoustica from Acons Software. It costs real money to purchase. You can get a similar, less-powerful application for free called Audacity, but I have never used the program, so I cannot tell you anything about it. I am an Acoustica Addict.

What I am currently doing in any precious-but-spare lucid downtime is having a quick listen to a random recording, judging roughly how poor the quality of the file is, and then opening the beastie with Acoustica. I am slapping boosters, filters, and delicate enhancers on to these erstwhile unlistenable files. When I re-save them, and try them out on my MP3 player, not only are they easy on the ears, but there is a new sense of depth and width to the sound, almost recreating the atmosphere of the hot humid jungle nights.

And just occasionally, it gets too close for comfort – the fear of the unknown terrors waiting outside, and the hypnotic, druggedly slurring Father. I recall one recording where Dad was talking about escapees. He asked what they were running from, and where to? Suddenly the terrifying jeopardy of these poor souls breaks through: safety is prison, and prison is safety. You don’t need electric fences when the jungle is pressing in from every point of the compass. Escape?

So hopefully, if I chip away long enough, I might be able to replace a few poor sounding tapes with clean ones that have enjoyed some technical jiggery-pokery.

The end result will not only be clarity of the sound quality of the tapes, but of the history they reveal. That will make capturing that history an easier job, a more complete job than did the 1979-vintage FBI Joe Friday who listened to 45 minutes of a rambling, slurring Comrade Jim commenting and interpreting the “News of the Day” gave us on Tape Q 732, when he/she wrote:

Side A contains a male speaker, appears to be in Guyana, South America, reporting, paraphrasing and adding text to news events. Appears to be a People’s Temple newscaster. Radio or TV can be heard in the background.

Side B contains a continuation of the same on side A. The same male in a news reporting status…

I look forward to helping to enhance the true value of Jonestown’s inheritance.

(A second article by Brad Jackson appears here. He can be reached at mad_vicar (AT)