The Federal Communications Commission is moving to revoke the license of Knoxville’s only black-owned radio station, WJBE, after questioning whether its current owner “has the character qualifications” to control the frequency.

The FCC actions come nearly six years after the criminal conviction of WJBE owner Joe Armstrong, a former longtime state representative from eastern Tennessee who was convicted in 2016 of making a misrepresentation on his tax return.

Armstrong and his attorney wonder why the federal agency is only now invoking its character clause for radio licensees. Armstrong voluntarily disclosed his conviction to the FCC in 2017 and has since served his sentence, which included house arrest, probation, community service and IRS reimbursement; 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 of success running a radio station. It will not protect the public. It just takes away a valuable community radio station,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney with the public interest law firm Institute for Justice, which represents Armstrong.

The firm seeks cases like Armstrong’s as part of its goal to represent “people fighting against irrational government laws that seek to permanently punish them for ancient crimes.” There are more than 15,000 laws nationwide that limit access to employment for people with criminal records, according to the firm.

Former Tennessee Rep. Joe Armstrong, who now runs WJBE, Knoxville’s only black-owned radio station. (Photo: Institute for Justice)

“Nobody should lose their license because of an irrelevant criminal conviction,” Ward said. “There is a growing consensus that these laws do not protect the public. These are permanent punishments that do not make people safer.

An FCC spokesperson declined to comment on ongoing legal proceedings, but noted that a licensee’s character is one of the most important factors considered by the FCC.

All radio stations must renew their license every eight years, and station owners convicted of a crime must have a hearing, the spokesperson said in an email Friday.

Armstrong has owned WJBE for a decade, purchasing the AM station license whose call letters were first created in 1968 by artist James Brown. The legendary ‘Godfather of Soul’ called his Knoxville radio station ‘soul radio’ and gave it his call letters, an acronym for ‘James Brown Enterprises’.

Now known as “Jammin’ 99.7 WJBE Radio: Just the Best Everyday!” the Powell, Tennessee station broadcasts hip-hop and R&B on AM radio, via an FM translator to the greater Knoxville area, and streams online. On Sunday mornings, the programming is denominational. In the afternoon, it switches to local jazz artists. It also airs the nationally broadcast Steve Harvey Show, serves as an advertising source for local black businesses, and provides a community forum for local nonprofits and service organizations to get their messages across.

The station is one of six all-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 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.

In 2012, there wasn’t much black-owned media in the region. Knoxville’s last black radio station went off the air in 2006. Outside of a monthly black newsmagazine, there was no black-owned media company that gave voice to culture and to black events in East Tennessee, he said.

“It was embarrassing not to have that,” said Armstrong, 63, who said he doesn’t have a salary at the station. “We brought pride back to WJBE.”

At the time, Armstrong was the Democratic state representative for Knoxville and parts of eastern Tennessee. He was first elected in 1988. In 2016, he was convicted of making a false statement on his 2008 tax return. Armstrong 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 is a growing consensus that these laws do not protect the public. These are permanent punishments that do not make people safer.

– Andrew Ward, lawyer, Institute for Justice

Armstrong bought the stamps a day before a legislative vote to raise the price of cigarette taxes. It was no crime for the legislator to take advantage of a law he voted for, and he was not found guilty of any official misconduct. His conviction related to failing to disclose earnings 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 the FCC 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 late report five years ago are at the forefront of complaints set out in a nine-page FCC order issued in March against Arm & Rage (A&R), Armstrong’s company.

“An applicant’s or licensee’s propensity to comply with the law is generally relevant because the willingness to be dishonest with other government agencies, to violate other laws and, in particular, to commit crimes, is potentially indicative of whether the applicant or licensee will in the future be in compliance with the rules or policies of the Commission,” said the FCC’s March 21 order setting a hearing for WJBE.

“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.”

The FCC complaint also notes that Armstrong failed to provide routine reporting on station programming and ownership.

Armstrong said last week that he self-disclosed the late filing of documents required by the FCC. Part of the reason the FCC reports weren’t filed was poor health, which included a kidney transplant, he said. Armstrong said he was ready to step down if WJBE could stay on the air. Otherwise, he said, the FCC’s actions would only serve to deprive radio listeners of an important black community resource.

“At this point, it looks like I’m being punished for a mistake I’ve made in the past,” Armstrong said. “I did 300 hours of community service, I got my vote back. I did everything the court asked me to do. Once a person paid their debt to society, does this punishment last for the rest of his life?”