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FCC Invokes Rarely Used Owner’s 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 looking to revoke the license of the Knoxville radio station once owned by James Brown. The media authorization body has invoked its radio license holders’ character clause to shut down the independent company that stands as one of only six Black-owned stations in Tennessee.

Joe Armstrong (Screenshot Institute for Justice)

Radio station WJBE is in jeopardy of losing its license after the FCC moved to investigate whether its current owner, Joe Armstrong, a former state representative from east Tennessee, is fit to have a station based on “the requisite character qualifications” to control the frequency,” the Tennessee Lookout reports.

Armstrong has served Knoxville and parts of east Tennessee since being elected in 1988 and purchased the radio station while he was still in office in 2012. In 2016, he was convicted of submitting a false statement on his 2008 tax return and failed to disclose more than $300,000 in income from the sale of cigarette tax stamps.

Prosecutors said Armstrong and his accountant conspired with each other to disguise the profit his company made from a cigarette tax stamp hike — legislation the former elected official helped pass when he served in the Tennessee General Assembly from 1988 to 2016.

The ex-congressman’s character came into question in 2017 after he revealed to the agency, he was found guilty of making false statements on his tax returns the year before. Armstrong was sentenced to house arrest, probation, community service, and paying back the IRS, penalties he has since completed. 

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

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

“We’ve got an impeccable record at this station. How long does a person have to bear the cross? I’ve paid my debt to society,” he said to the newspaper in an interview last month. “To come back and question my ability to run this station is a knee-jerk reaction on their part. This is bigger than me.”

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

“Joe has a decade-long record of successfully running a radio station,” Ward told the newspaper. ‘This is not going to be protecting 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’s a growing consensus that these laws don’t protect the public. They are permanent punishments that don’t make people safer.”

Armstrong, as a station owner, is required to have a hearing to defend his qualification despite his felonious conviction. The complications came in when he shared the information with the FCC.

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

An order from the FCC states, “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 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.”

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

The history behind that station’s call letters is rooted in its rich history. In 1968, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, purchased 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 call letters for the station with an acronym for his umbrella entity “James Brown Enterprises.”

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

When he purchased the company, few Black-owned media brands existed in the area, with the last Black-owned radio station ending its broadcast six years prior. According to Armstrong, there was only a monthly Black news magazine germane to the lives of Black Tennesseans before he re-established WJBE, a company he takes no salary from.

When talking about the lack of Black presence in the media space, Armstrong said, “It was embarrassing.” He later declared, “We brought pride back to WJBE.”

Fans of the station agree, stating it provides a voice that was absent before the started broadcasting.

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

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

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