Listening to Jonestown

As researchers and historians know, the Peoples Temple was quite proactive in keeping careful documentation of their internal and external activities and dealings. One way this was accomplished was by making audio recordings of everything from telephone conversations, meetings, “confessions” and, after the move to Jonestown, amateur radio communications. Amateur radio was the fastest and most convenient mode of communication between Guyana and the United States, and the Temple valued it highly, using it to its fullest potential. Concerned amateur radio operators, better known as “hams”, listened to the traffic passed back and forth between Guyana and San Francisco with raised eyebrows. Concern grew as these hams began noticing obvious rule violations on the part of the Temple operators. While many merely grumbled at the fact, others took action, filing complaints against the Temple to various organizations including the American Radio Relay League and the Federal Communications Commission. A handful of hams even went so far as to monitor and record Temple communications between Guyana and the U.S. in hopes of providing evidence of rule violations. In time, some of these tapes were sent to the FCC for analysis. Fielding McGehee, primary researcher for the Jonestown Institute, holds copies of such tapes and had asked me in the Fall of 2003 if I would be interested in listening to and transcribing them. I accepted.

The FCC tapes number 1-24, covering dates in 1977 and 1978, and are in no particular order. I began with a group of four tapes, and what I heard only reinforced what I had already been told about the nature of the material on them: they were coded and secretive ham radio communications. When I began listening to the first tape (FCC #3) I found nothing odd about it. Two men, thousands of miles apart, exchanged part numbers for appliances like freezers and refrigerators. I kept waiting for the blatant rule infractions like obvious business traffic and coded talk. But on first blush, everything sounded on the level. At times, some obvious mistakes came through, such as the botching of call signs, which occurred more than once. This aside, nothing struck me as too odd. However, as I worked transcribing the other tapes, my suspicions grew, and suddenly things began appearing odd and inconsistent. The “code” began to emerge, and although I had no idea what it all meant (and I’m still struggling with it), I knew it sounded peculiar.

I wasn’t alone in this. Twenty-five years ago, hams across the nation heard the same things and wondered about their true meaning. After a while, it was easy to see – for example – how names of people and places were being disguised. Speakers with distinct voices like Maria Katsaris and Deborah Layton didn’t refer to themselves by their real names. I initially wondered, “Who the heck are Sarah, Martha, Margaret, Marguerite, and Mildred?” With the help of the Temple code books – located on the Jonestown website here – we are beginning to find out.

Clearly, the code is the most intriguing aspects of these tapes. However, if one listens closely enough and long enough, other important fascinating things begin to emerge. Personalities, likes, dislikes, pet-peeves, temperament. “normal” people-stuff becomes as obvious as the code. The individuals making these radio transmissions weren’t strictly mission-minded automatons. They joked, laughed, made mistakes, and grew annoyed at one another on more than one occasion.

I find that I look forward to these moments of “exposure” because it is refreshing, because it removes the sting of the oft-repeated formula of: “speak-relay-question-relay-answer-next” that dominates the majority of the conversations.

What kind of things should one expect to hear on these tapes? Everything from the mundane to the super-secret. For instance, on FCC #6, one radio operator in Guyana argues with a radio operator in San Francisco about the benefits of brown versus white rice. On the same tape, veiled talk includes references to “Ricky’s top boss” and “the plumber’s daughter.” On FCC #4 a rare break-in occurred when a stateside ham broke the QSO (ham-slang for “contact”) between Guyana and the US in an attempt to track down the QSL (ham-slang for “message received”) card that a Jonestown operator has promised to send him. The conversation that follows is revealing of the kind of deception which Temple radio operators practiced. When the stateside ham initially makes contact, a Temple radio operator – who I believe is Debby Layton – tells the ham her name is “Mildred.” Only a minute later Layton tells the ham, “Uh, the handle here right now is Sarah. Sierra Alpha Romeo Alpha Hotel.” Even more bizarre than this blatant attempt at disguising her identity is the fact that the ham doesn’t appear to notice the discrepancy.or doesn’t care. Also on FCC #4, one Temple operator explains to another operator the workings of a play entitled “Melanie” that the children presented. The description of the play includes details about the names of the characters and what they did or said as they interacted with the other players. Clearly, this is all code, but for what I have yet to determine. Perhaps the details of the “play” reflected actual events that had taken place at some kind of meeting or happenstance event. Again, it is an example of the kind of on-air deception that Temple radio operators regularly engaged in.

There is more work to be done with these tapes, aside from simply transcribing them. For instance, one goal is to locate the maker, or makers, of these tapes. I know of a few possible sources and have been in contact with them on several occasions. One ham in Tennessee has what amounts to a treasure trove of recordings and notes he made in 1977 and 1978 of Guyana/US communications.

Working on these FCC tapes has allowed me to expand my scope of interest in Peoples Temple/Jonestown history. As a result, I have been working for months, gathering information and source material from hams across the US about their experiences listening to and communicating with Temple radio operators in Jonestown. I have received everything from actual QSL cards sent from Jonestown to a copy of Dr. Larry Schacht’s application for membership in the Medical Amateur Radio Council (MARCO), an amateur radio based medical network. Although the overall response I have received to my appeals for information has been relatively small, in all actuality I am thrilled I have received as much as I have and I am grateful to each and every ham who went out of his or her way to help me in my endeavor. I am also thankful for the help that many former Temple members have extended to me by answering my questions and providing their critical insight and criticism. I look forward to the months and years ahead as I continue my work on these tapes and the broader project of exploring the Temple’s use of amateur radio.

(Josef Dieckman has written extensively about both the so-called death tape (Q 042) and the “day after” tape (Q 875). His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He may be reached at