Transforming the Jonestown Tapes to Digital Format

by Greg Sawtell

It is a rare opportunity to listen in on the rise and development of a people’s movement. For the past several months I have had such an opportunity, as I work on the project of converting the Peoples Temple audio tapes from analog to digital format.

After watching Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, I turned to the internet in hopes of finding the audio recordings used in the film. I wanted to listen to the primary source material, free of the concision demanded by traditional media outlets. I was surprised to find that only a single tape, labeled Q 875, could be accessed online. While my search did not yield many audio recordings, I did find my way to this website. Learning that there are more than 200 transcribed audiotapes – and more than 750 altogether – I offered my services to begin converting them to digital format.

My effort is guided by the idea that making information more accessible leads to more critical dialogue and understanding between a wider variety of people. I saw the analog format as an obstacle preventing potential listeners from accessing the Peoples Temple tapes. I simply connected a technological process, digital audio conversion, with the aim of increasing access to an audio resource.

The process is fairly straightforward. As the analog tape plays on an ordinary tape deck, I output the signal into a digital audio recorder. This yields a digital audio file stored on removable media (in this case the media is a compact flash card). Next, I transfer the audio file onto a computer where the digital file can be edited, shared online, or written onto an audio CD. I am currently recording in MP3 format to keep file sizes to a minimum; a one hour recording translates into a 25 MB MP3 file.

At this point I have converted over one-hundred tapes ranging in length from a few minutes to two hours. Ideally, a visitor to “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple,” will be able to download, listen to, and share the Peoples Temple audio resources in addition to reading the transcripts. We have a ways to go yet, but the project is underway and progressing steadily.

(Greg Sawtell can be reached at greggalen@gmail.com.)

Originally posted on July 25th, 2013.

Last modified on February 27th, 2014.
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