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.
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.
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.
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”
One last surprising part of the production of Father Cares: It was produced in Deb and Noah’s spare time.
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.
*Note: The photo of Reverend Jim Jones at the top of this post is by Nancy Wong.