Black-owned radio station may lose license over FCC 'character qualifications' policy
The owner of Knoxville, Tennessee's only Black-owned radio station, WJBE, is fighting back against the Federal Communications Commission as the agency is threatening to revoke his broadcast license because of a prior felony conviction.
Joe Armstrong, the owner of WJBE 99.7 FM/1040 AM — whose call letters pay tribute to the original WJBE's owner, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown — told NPR that the FCC is threatening to revoke his broadcast license over his prior conviction for a tax crime, one that occurred years before he took ownership of the station in 2012.
Armstrong said the radio station is a fixture in Knoxville, serving as a source of news for the Black community — being very much a community-oriented station. It broadcasts local news and weather, church services, emerging artists, free advertising for struggling small businesses and, in recent years, information about the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Institute for Justice, a civil rights group that is representing Armstrong's case.
The FCC is questioning whether Armstrong, a former long-serving state representative in the Tennessee General Assembly, would be able to own a radio station with integrity following his conviction in 2016 for making a false statement on his tax return.
"It's not like this is something that happened, let's say, this year or last year — we're talking about something that happened in 2008," Armstrong said.
Around that time, Armstrong and a partner legally bought cigarette tax stamps that were later sold for a profit following the Tennessee legislature's vote to increase the state's cigarette tax, according to the Institute for Justice.
His accountant reportedly did not properly pay the taxes on this sale, resulting in Armstrong facing trouble with the IRS. In 2016, he was acquitted of most of the charges against him and was convicted of only a single count of making a false statement on his tax return. (Armstrong's accountant, Charles Stivers, was convicted of tax fraud and was granted probation in 2017.)
"There's a lot of people out here that have made a mistake or have been falsely accused and punished for something," Armstrong said. "But when people make restitution, when they've done everything that they're supposed to do — paid their fine[s], completed the community service — they've shown that their character, if whatever they did, it was a mistake."
After Armstrong's conviction, the judge called his offense an "aberration" in an otherwise "exemplary life." Armstrong's civil rights, including his right to vote, were restored in 2020. In 2017, he reportedly let the FCC know about his conviction, which Armstrong says had caused no issues until last year.
"I've had the opportunity after my conviction [to show] that I have the character [to operate the station] ... the only minority station in this market," Armstrong said.
Now, Armstrong and his attorney are questioning why the commission would strip the station's license and implement its 33-year-old character qualifications policy for radio license holders.
Andrew Ward, the attorney representing the case, argues that Armstrong's previous conviction is irrelevant to his ability to own and operate WJBE responsibly, saying that stripping the station of its license hurts the community more than anything.
"WJBE has been a beacon for more than a decade. It makes zero sense that the FCC would threaten to take that away because of Joe Armstrong's 14-year-old, unrelated tax crime," Ward said in a statement to NPR.
The FCC declined to comment on Armstrong's pending case, as the case is still in hearing. Paloma Perez, press secretary for the FCC, told NPR that the commission has a duty to ensure that everyone holding a license to use the public airwaves "does so in the public interest."
"It is longstanding practice that any licensee with a felony conviction be placed into hearing in order to examine whether the licensee has the requisite character qualifications to remain a trustee of the public airwaves," Perez told NPR in a statement.
Armstrong's case with the FCC is similar to several cases where the commission has placed licensees into hearing status due to previous felonies.
In Alabama, Michael Hubbard, a former speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives and CEO of Auburn Network Inc., was convicted in 2016 by a jury of violating 12 counts of Alabama's ethics code.
Hubbard, who owns and operates multiple radio stations across Alabama, was also questioned by the FCC regarding his previous convictions and whether he should continue to hold his license. After months of arguments and hearings, the FCC ultimately did not revoke Hubbard's licenses.
In Pennsylvania, Roger Wahl — the owner of WQZS, a classic-rock radio station in Meyersdale — also went through legal proceedings with the FCC over his station license following several charges related to a criminal investigation.
Wahl pleaded guilty to charges connected with accusations that he solicited strangers to sexually assault his female friend by setting up a fake online dating profile, local TV station WJAC 6 News reported. In April 2023, the FCC revoked Wahl's license.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.