I was a sound engineer and history enthusiast when the Jonestown institute became an important part of my life nearly twenty years ago. Presented with the opportunity to archive Peoples Temple audio recordings, I made it my mission to digitize as much as I could for the benefit of surviving Peoples Temple members as well as my own curiosity.
I never expected the story of Peoples Temple to forever change my perception of society, nor could I have guessed that I would spend nearly three years producing a podcast on the subject.
The Peoples Temple audio archive, lovingly preserved by the Jonestown Institute, has been the cornerstone of my research. After absorbing as many facts as I could from books and documentaries about Jonestown, my work with the audio has allowed me to experience events in real time. This rare quality makes the audio archive invaluable and is reason enough to create an audio series that chronologically tells the story of Peoples Temple.
After listening to hours of Jim Jones slur news broadcasts and untranscribable radio transmissions, I felt compelled to somehow transform the abstract experience of searching through a thousand hours of transcripts and raw audio into a kind of cinematic experience for the audio learner. Using the audio to tell the story of Peoples Temple, I could let history speak for itself, giving sound bites the context I felt they desperately needed. So I began writing the first script for what I envisioned to be a four-part audio series covering the rise and fall of Peoples Temple.
From the outset I decided stick to the historical facts and not to dumb anything down. Both proved to be difficult, given the huge list of people that made up the Peoples Temple hierarchy and the 25 years of Temple history that predates the mass tragedy in Jonestown. It was just too much information to fit into a four-hour series. Separating fact from opinion and history from conspiracy theory also proved challenging. One moment I’m researching the history of Guyana and before I knew it I’ve spent six hours researching the war in Grenada, Green Berets and Bo Gritz. It’s just too easy to fall down a rabbit hole.
I was determined to focus on how it all began, what led the Temple to Guyana and how Jim Jones’ timeline both reflected and drove that history. When I finished the first script and began recording it, I immediately realized that I had written a three-hour episode. It was going to take far more time than I’d thought to tell the story. Digging through all of the audio archive to find the perfect sound bite also wound up taking far more time than I had anticipated. There are so many great recordings. All that was good and bad about Peoples Temple is clearly conveyed through the messages on these tapes. Choosing just the right one took time.
As I listened to the first ten minutes of episode one, something about it still felt empty and cold. No one likes listening to their own voice, but it was more than that. The story was there – the voice of Jim Jones booming a paranoid warning of peril – but the silence in between almost seemed to mirror society’s apathy towards the victims of Jonestown. I decided to write an original score to enhance the emotional impact of listening to the show. Music is the glue that brings the story together and helps the audience identify with the subject matter. Now titled Transmissions From Jonestown, my podcast became my contribution to bring history to life through a cinematic audio experience.
Once I had established a format, I could work more efficiently. It took me about a year to complete the first three episodes of Transmissions From Jonestown. After covering a chronological history of Peoples Temple, I still felt inspired to write about what happened to the survivors of Jonestown, the history of Guyana, and the conspiracy theories that permeate Peoples Temple lore.
I thought about the potential audience. Because I am releasing the podcast for free on the internet, I can format the show however I like, and cover whatever subject matter I believe to be relevant or entertaining. I am not restricted to an American market, nor by censors. People under the age of thirty love podcasts on their long commutes to their tech jobs, and even though it is independently produced, this new media format for news and entertainment has become more popular for many people.
This particular age group is my audience as well. In too many cases, they may be well educated about American history, but they still have little knowledge of Peoples Temple. I realized that Transmissions From Jonestown might reach an audience unaware of the mass tragedy or its historical significance. I felt it was important to tell the entire story of Jonestown’s effects on society, while ensuring that theories are not mistaken as facts by an unwitting audience. I decided to utilize anonymous contributors for the remaining episodes of the series to ensure that the audience could more easily differentiate Jonestown history from conspiracy theories covered in the latter episodes of the show.
I thought about the survivors of Peoples Temple and their reaction to the show. It is my greatest hope that by telling many different sides of the same story exposing, the humanity juxtaposed by the brutality of Jim Jones and the movement will inspire compassion in my listeners. My research has taught me to beware false prophets, to never judge a person based on appearances, and most importantly to never underestimate the passionate idealists or the casual supporters of any cause that has a following.
The message I hope to convey is to always think for yourself and commit to doing some research before you compartmentalize people into massive antisocial categories such as cults. The survivors of Jonestown deserve more than a drink the Kool-aide entry into the urban dictionary. They deserve all of the history of Peoples Temple, the truth about Jim Jones, and the impact of mass suicide on American culture to be analyzed and recorded for the betterment of American society.
Transmissions From Jonestown will be available on I Tunes and Google Play on November 18, 2017.
(Shannon Howard’s previous article for the jonestown report is Transmissions From Jonestown: New Podcast to Feature Raw Audiotapes. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)