Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown with Deb Amos and Noah Adams

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Listen to “Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown with Deb Amos and Noah Adams”

On the rare occasion you hear a public radio producer speak of Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown, it’s usually with reverence, admiration and awe. NPR produced by the documentary in 1981 and my editor, John Barth, says he can still hear it in his mind. It’s that stunning. But, despite its legendary status, Father Cares is largely forgotten.

The documentary relates the story of Jim Jones and “The Peoples Agricultural Project,” usually referred to as “Jonestown.” Jones and his over nine hundred followers are notorious for committing mass suicide and murder in Guyana in 1978. This is not a story for young people or the faint of heart. In fact, it contains some of the most frightening recordings I’ve ever heard.

Two things stand out in Father Cares. First, the tapes. Jim Jones recorded himself preaching. Not just once or twice but for hundreds of hours. James Reston Jr., author of a book about Jonestown, Our Father Who Art in Hell, acquired the disturbing tapes from the FBI.

Second, the affectless narration. The narrator, Noah Adams, delivers the story as a traumatized former member of Jonestown. It’s a highly unusual choice but remarkably effective. Both Noah and the documentary’s producer, Deborah Amos, talk about these strange and curious aspects of the story on this edition of HowSound.

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Listen to “Deb Amos on the early days of NPR”

But, there were several other elements to the production I didn’t have a chance to include in this episode. For instance, the music Deb and Noah used to score the piece.

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Listen to “Deb on the music in Father Cares”

Father Cares is an unusual length – a little over an hour and fifteen minutes. The producers took their time telling the story. And, the network provided the space it deserved. But both Noah and Deb say it’s highly unlikely it would ever happen again.

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Listen to “Noah on the length of stories”
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Listen to “Deb on the length of stories”

In this edition of HowSound, Noah talks about how frightened he was. Not by the tape – which he says is “shattering” — but by the possibility of violence against journalists committed by supporters of Jim Jones. He told me one story about going to dinner with Bill Moyers prior to the broadcast and being frightened when a stranger in a trench coat enters the room.(Moyers, by the way, hosted a live call-in talk show after “Father Cares”
was aired.)

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Listen to “Noah’s fear”

One last surprising part of the production of Father Cares: It was produced in Deb and Noah’s spare time.

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Listen to “Deb and Noah producing nights and weekends”

I can’t encourage you enough to listen to Father Cares: The Last of Jonestown in its entirety. It’s truly remarkable and worthy of the Prix Italia and DuPont Columbia awards it received.

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  • Flawn Williams

    9.23.15

    Reply

    Most of the sound design credit for “Father Cares” goes to my amazingly talented colleague at the time Skip Pizzi. When the production timeline ran long, Skip had to take off to fulfill other responsibilities, and I got to step in to mix the middle of three half hours. But much of what I did was just trying to remain consistent with the great design Skip had created. I’m proud to have had even that small role in this project, it was an amazing piece of audio mostly-non-fiction storytelling.

    Skip and I both got a lot of satisfaction out of teaching as well as practicing the craft. On some occasions we got to lead training workshops together, and I particularly loved those. Among the most memorable was our joint workshop at one of the ‘Airlie’ producers’ conferences on Long Island, when we had a late-night listening session for “Father Cares”. Seeing a roomful of folks lying inert on the meeting room floor, all of them listening to the mass suicide scenes from “Father Cares”, was an image that will stay with me always.

  • Rob Rosenthal

    9.23.15

    Reply

    Flawn – When you hear the story again today, do you think it holds up? Thanks. Rob

  • Andrew Whitacre

    9.24.15

    Reply

    Really fabulous episode — and one point in particular from Noah got me thinking about storytelling ethics. Noah said using the audio of the Jonestown deaths would have been profane…in the sense there’s something so solemn about the moment of death (let alone so many simultaneous, senseless deaths) that to use it in a radio story would be disrespectful. But Noah’s semi-fictional narration had its own horror, and some might say producing that effect through a storytelling device — when the raw audio was there for use — would be profane in its own way.

    So my question for Noah is: your production team quickly (and, to me, rightly) dismissed broadcasting the recording of the deaths, but what can you tell us about your discussion around what to replace it with? How did you settle on that concluding narration? What could students learn about how to handle a moment that is so horrible that it shouldn’t be broadcast but so essential that the story can’t be told without it?

    • Deborah Amos

      9.25.15

      Reply

      I will leave it to Noah to answer on Father Cares directly – but these decisions continue. Should we post the beheading videos of James Foley? (no) Should we publish the picture of a Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach? (yes, but many who did felt it necessary to explain the decision)

      • Andrew

        9.29.15

        Deborah, have you founf yourself in Noah’s rhetorical situation, feeling there’s a need for something untraditional to communicate something violent?

  • Rob Rosenthal

    9.25.15

    Reply

    Andrew — Thanks for your question. I let both Noah and Deb know and hopefully they’ll find a moment to respond. Thanks for listening (and reposting this question from Twitter!). Best, Rob

  • Jonathan Birchall

    10.19.15

    Reply

    This is a remarkable piece. Many thanks.

  • sarah kramer

    11.10.15

    Reply

    Fantastic episode – thank you for introducing me to this piece! I’m curious to know two things: how Noah was presented to listeners, some of whom must have recognized his voice from NPR. Was he presented as a “fictional narrator” at the beginning, or was that revealed in the back announce? (Unfortunately the .ram audio on the NPR site is corrupted so I couldn’t listen to the whole piece with intro and outro). And how did listeners react to this piece? Were they upset about the “fictional narrator” or were they ambivalent about it? Hard to imagine this airing on NPR today.

  • Deb Macleod

    12.04.15

    Reply

    This story will forever be pertinent…a great reminder of how religion has so often been used as a tool to generate hate.

  • greg

    6.19.16

    Reply

    I listened to the original broadcast in 1981 and never forgot it because of its shocking nature and because Jim Jones actually recorded so much of himself including the final drinking of the cyanide. The phrase “Drank the Kool Aid” started from this however, Jonestown actually used the less expensive brand FlaVor Aid in the poisoned vat not Kool AId.
    I’m glad to have the opportunity to listen again, I have tired to find this for many years. I’m not sure why extremes of behavior fascinate us so much particularly ones ending so sadly,

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