Jonestown and Ham Radio

WB6MID/8R3 1978 Jonestown, Guyana (credit:K9RHY, hamgallery.com)

The Jonestown mass murder in 1978 is viewed as the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11. Prior to this, amateur radio was used by the Peoples Temple to maintain communications from Guyana to San Francisco and Georgetown. Their use however raised concerns with other hams due to obvious rule violations made by Temple operators. Some ham operators took action by recording these QSOs and filed complaints with the ARRL and FCC.

These recordings were finally transcribed in 2003 by Josef Dieckman at the request of the Jonestown Institute. He has written two articles about his experiences: “QSL cards provide insight into Temple radio communications” and “Listening to Jonestown”.

Here is an excerpt:

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.

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