Amateur radio has been in existence long enough and maintained a large enough audience to have attracted its fair share of brilliant innovators, eclectics, oddballs, and even a few miscreants over the years. On balance I like to think that history will be kind to our fraternity, but good things seldom attract as much attention as bad.
You might think that cheating on a contest score or at the game of DX was the most harm an enthusiast could inflict on amateur radio. As scandalous as those things might seem to us it wouldn’t begin to move the interest needle for popular news media.
But when ham radio played a role in a cult that turned to mass suicide and assassination of an American congressman and his envoy, well, that certainly grabbed headlines. It just wasn’t the kind of attention that endeared the general public to our hobby.
WIKIPEDIA: The Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, better known by its informal name “Jonestown”, was a remote settlement in Guyana established by the Peoples Temple, a U.S.-based cult under the leadership of Jim Jones. Jonestown became internationally infamous when, on November 18, 1978, a total of 909 people died at the settlement, at the nearby airstrip in Port Kaituma, and at a Temple-run building in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city.
There are more than enough online references (and movies) about those events in Jonestown to fill your browser reading time for a month. Search for them up if you’re really interested.
But as a radio enthusiast you might find this tiny, behind the scene look at the role played by amateur radio, and the ARRL reaction in the immediate aftermath of what went on in Jonestown.
The following snippet was lifted from the December 19, 1978 edition of the West Coast DX Bulletin (50-78) published weekly from 1968 to 1979 by Hugh Cassidy, WA6AUD (SK).
The ARRL was not exactly enthusiastic about the operations from the Peoples Temple and some violations, or apparent violations, had been called to their attention.
Back in the summer of 1977 the traffic from the People’s Temple in Guyana to San Francisco indicated that amateur radio was one of their main means of communications. Acting on complaints, the ARRL wrote to WB6MID/8R3, the reply received said their work was so important that there should be no worry about detractors who were part of a conspiracy against the temple.
Violations of Articles 41 and 97 of the rules were discussed with the FCC and assurance was given that the FCC was aware of things and was handling things in their own way. Subsequent to the Guyana disaster it was learned that one U.S. amateur was fined heavily and a considerable number of notices of violations were mailed by the Commission to various U.S. licensed offenders.
In 1978 the communications became more and more encrypted until over 80% of the communications to and from Jonestown were heavily encrypted–from the traffic itself to schedUles and frequencies. Most U.S. amateurs who worked WB6MID/8R3 received the elaborate QSL card with propaganda on the Temple’s work. Some did not receive QSLs and often the Jonestown operators were soliciting financial contributions, running phone patches and asking for supplies to be sent to them. It appears a good many well-meaning amateurs complied with these requests.
The ARRL representative who pursued the matter with the FCC received about a hundred letters admonishing him and the ARRL to cease and desist, that the use of amateur radio by the Temple was essential to their operations and that it’s use was justified by this fact. Some of the letters contained threats that if there was not a stop to the objections to the Temples operations, the ARRL representative could be stopped. These letters went to the FBI.
Gerald Zuckerman is the FCC official handling the case. He has made efforts to convince the press that amateur radio cannot be held responsible for the actions of some misguided individuals. The FCC also noted that it issued citations to individuals involved in the Temples work for violating FCC Regulations 97.114, 97.117, 97.121, 98.87a, 97.61 and 97.123. These range from third party traffic violations to out-of-the-band operations.
Since the disaster, the ARRL has received approximately seventy phone calls from the media seeking information. The ARRL has replied to these inquiries, making it abundantly clear that the ARRL since the very beginning of Jonestown has been firmly on record as opposing the illegal use of Amateur Radio for their communications.