FCC invokes seldom-used owner character clause in attempt to revoke license of Knoxville’s only black-owned radio station: ‘I’ve paid my debt’

The Federal Communications Commission is seeking to revoke the license for the Knoxville radio station that was once owned by James Brown. The media licensing body invoked the character clause of its radio licensees to shut down the independent company which is one of only six black-owned stations in Tennessee.

Joe Armstrong (Screening Institute for Justice)

Radio station WJBE faces losing its license after the FCC decides to investigate whether its current owner, Joe Armstrong, a former state representative from eastern Tennessee, is fit to have a station based on “the character qualifications required” to control the frequency,” reports the Tennessee Lookout.

Armstrong has served Knoxville and parts of East Tennessee since his election in 1988 and bought the radio station while still in office in 2012. In 2016 he was convicted of submitting a false statement on his 2008 tax return and did not disclose more than $300,000 in revenue from the sale of cigarette tax stamps.

Prosecutors said Armstrong and his accountant conspired with each other to cover up profits his company made from a cigarette stamp tax hike – legislation the former lawmaker helped pass when he served in the Tennessee General Assembly from 1988 to 2016.

The former congressman’s character was called into question in 2017 after he revealed to the agency that he had been convicted of making false statements on his tax returns the previous year. Armstrong was sentenced to house arrest, probation, community service, and IRS reimbursement, terms he has since served.

According to the clause, which the FCC says is one of the most important factors in issuing a license, the state representative’s conviction is in violation of the rules of the code of conduct. This further disqualifies him from running for and being elected to public office in the state.

The FCC notice was received in March 2022, Armstrong said, and he was shocked when it arrived, reports the Knoxville News Sentinel.

“We have an impeccable record at this station. How long should a person carry the cross? I paid my debt to society,” he told the newspaper in an interview last month. “Coming back and questioning my ability to run this station is a knee-jerk reaction on their part. It’s bigger than me.

Armstrong’s attorney, Andrew Ward, wonders why it’s taken them six years to invoke the clause now, especially since there have been no complaints to the FCC about the station.

“Joe has a decade of success running a radio station,” Ward told the newspaper. “It will not protect the public. It’s just taking away a valuable community radio station.

“No one should lose their license because of an irrelevant criminal conviction,” Ward added. “There is a growing consensus that these laws do not protect the public. These are permanent punishments that do not make people safer.

Armstrong, as the station’s owner, is required to have a hearing to defend his qualification despite his criminal conviction. Complications arose when he shared the information with the FCC.

He disclosed his conviction on April 14, 2017. However, according to the FCC, his deadline for reporting discretion was April 1, 2017, two weeks earlier.

An FCC order states that “an applicant’s or licensee’s propensity to comply with the law is generally relevant because a willingness not to be truthful with other government agencies, to violate other laws and, in particular, to commit crimes, is potentially indicative of whether the applicant or licensee will abide by the rules or policies of the Council in the future.

“The purpose of the hearing is not to retry the facts that led to Armstrong’s felony conviction, but rather to consider the impact of this judged misconduct and A&R’s admitted rule violations on Armstrong and , by extension, A&R, character qualifications when viewed with any mitigating factors.”

WJBE Radio, known as “Jamming 99.7” on the AM dial, has been part of Armstrong’s portfolio for a decade.

The story behind this station’s call letters is rooted in its rich history. In 1968, the godfather of soul, James Brown, bought the company and established it as “soul radio”, one of the first of its kind in the United States.

Mr. “Black and I’m Proud” fashioned the station’s call letters with an acronym for his umbrella entity “James Brown Enterprises”.

Armstrong had ties to the radio station, dating back to those years under Brown. While a student at the University of Tennessee, he worked as a salesman for Brown’s WJBE.

When he bought the company, few black-owned media brands existed in the region, with the last black-owned radio station having ended its broadcast six years prior. According to Armstrong, there was only a monthly black news magazine related to the lives of Black Tennesseans before he reinstated WJBE, a company from which he received no salary.

Speaking of the lack of black presence in the media space, Armstrong said, “It was embarrassing.” He later said, “We brought the pride back to WJBE.”

The station’s fans agree, saying it provides a voice that was missing before the broadcast began.

Felecia Outsey, a WJBE listener, says it speaks to her and for her.

“It’s for our listeners, it’s for our audience, but necessarily black audiences,” Outsey said in an interview with WBIR.com.

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