WJBE in 1968 when the station opened. (Photo: Facebook)
The Federal Communications Commission is taking steps to revoke the license of Knoxville’s only Black-owned radio station, WJBE, after questioning whether its current owner “possesses the requisite character qualifications” to control the frequency.
The FCC’s actions come nearly six years after the criminal conviction of WJBE’s owner, Joe Armstrong, a former long-serving state representative from east Tennessee who was found guilty in 2016 of making a false statement on his tax return.
Armstrong and his attorney are questioning why the federal agency is only now invoking its character clause for radio license holders. Armstrong voluntarily disclosed his conviction to the FCC in 2017 and has since completed his sentence, which included house arrest, probation, community service and paying back the IRS; his conviction also disqualified him from holding public office.
There have been no complaints to the FCC about the station, they said.
“Joe has a decade-long record of successfully running a radio station. This is not going to be protecting the public. It’s just taking away a valuable community radio station,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney with the public interest law firm, Institute for Justice, who is representing Armstrong.
The firm seeks out cases like Armstrong’s as part of its focus on representing “people fighting irrational government laws that seek to permanently punish them for old crimes.” There are more than 15,000 laws nationally that limit job access for people with criminal records, according to the firm.
“No one should lose their license because of an irrelevant criminal conviction,” Ward said. “There’s a growing consensus that these laws don’t protect the public. They are permanent punishments that don’t make people safer.”
A spokesperson for the FCC declined to comment on an active court proceeding but noted that the character of a license holder is among the most important factors the FCC considers.
All radio stations must renew their license every eight years, and station owners with felony convictions are required to have a hearing, the spokesperson said in a Friday email.
Armstrong has owned WJBE for a decade, purchasing the license of the AM station whose call letters were first established in 1968 by entertainer James Brown. The legendary “Godfather of Soul” billed his Knoxville radio station as “soul radio” and gave it its call letters, an acronym for “James Brown Enterprises.”
Now known as “Jammin’ 99.7 WJBE Radio: Just the Best Everyday!” the Powell, Tenn. station broadcasts hip hop and R&B on AM radio, through an FM translator to the greater Knoxville area, and streams online. On Sunday mornings, the programming is faith-based. By afternoon it switches to local jazz artists. It also broadcasts the nationally syndicated Steve Harvey Show, serves as an advertising source for local Black businesses and provides a community forum for local nonprofit and service organizations to get their messages out.
The station is one of six just Black-owned radio stations in Tennessee, according to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. The others are WLOK-AM in Memphis, WBOL-AM and WOJG-FM, both in Bolivar, WDKH-AM and -FM in Dickson and WVOL-AM in Nashville, according to the association.
Armstrong said last week he bought the radio station in 2012 to fill a void in the Knoxville area long after James Brown’s radio station had changed hands — and with a certain sense of nostalgia. Armstrong had worked as a salesman for Brown’s radio station as a student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
By 2012, there weren’t many Black-owned media in the area. The last Knoxville Black radio station stopped broadcasting in 2006. Outside a once-monthly Black news magazine, there were no Black-owned media companies that gave voice to east Tennessee Black culture and events, he said.
“It was embarrassing not to have that,” said Armstrong, 63, who said he does not take a salary from the station. “We brought pride back to WJBE.”
At the time, Armstrong was serving as a Democratic state representative for Knoxville and parts of east Tennessee. He was first elected to office in 1988. In 2016 he was convicted of making a false statement on his 2008 tax return. Armstrong had failed to disclose more than $300,000 in income from the sale of cigarette tax stamps — stamps affixed to tobacco products that retailers must purchase in order to sell them.
No one should lose their license because of an irrelevant criminal conviction. There's a growing consensus that these laws don't protect the public. They are permanent punishments that don't make people safer.
– Andrew Ward, attorney, Institute for Justice
Armstrong purchased the stamps a day before a legislative vote to raise the price of cigarette taxes. It was not a crime for the lawmaker to profit from a law he voted for, and he was not convicted of any official misconduct. His conviction related to failing to disclose the profit when filing his tax return. Amid the revelations, Armstrong resigned from the legislature in 2016.
Armstrong disclosed his conviction to the FCC on April 14, 2017. But he was two weeks late, according to FCC’s order setting a hearing on the future of the station. He was required to report the conviction on April 1, 2017, the order said.
Armstrong’s felony conviction and its late reporting five years ago are chief among the complaints laid out in a nine-page FCC order issued in March against Arm & Rage (A&R), Armstrong’s company.
“An applicant or licensee’s propensity to comply with the law generally is relevant because a willingness to be less than truthful with other government agencies, to violate other laws, and, in particular, to commit felonies, is potentially indicative of whether the applicant or licensee will in the future conform to the Commission’s rules or policies,” the FCC’s March 21 order setting a hearing for WJBE said.
“The purpose of the hearing is not to retry the facts which led to Armstrong’s felony conviction but, rather, to consider the impact of that adjudicated misconduct and A&R’s admitted rule violations on Armstrong’s and, by extension A&R’s, character qualifications when viewed along with any mitigating factors.”
The FCC complaint also notes that Armstrong failed to provide routine station programming and ownership reports.
Armstrong said last week he self-disclosed tardy reporting of required FCC documents. Part of the reason behind failing to file FCC reports was poor health, which included undergoing a kidney transplant, he said. Armstrong said he is willing to step aside if WJBE can remain on the air. Otherwise, he said, the FCC’s actions would serve only to deprive the radio’s listeners of an important Black community resource.
“At this point it seems I’m being punished for a mistake I made in the past,” Armstrong said. “I served 300 hours of community service, I had my voting rights restored. I’ve done everything the court has asked me to do. Once a person has paid their debt to society, does that punishment last the rest of their life?”
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