Institute for Justice
A Federal Communications Commission judge has rejected an attempt by the agency to revoke the broadcast license of WJBE 99.7 FM/1040 AM, Knoxville, Tennessee’s only black-owned radio station, allowing the station to continue broadcasting.
In a ruling issued Sept. 14, a judge ruled that WJBE owner Joe Armstrong should not have his broadcast license revoked — despite the agency’s concerns about Armstrong’s previous conviction for a tax offense , which occurred years before he became its owner. from the station in 2012.
Judge Jane Hinckley Halprin, the agency’s administrative law judge, concluded in her ruling that Armstrong’s conviction was an isolated event, saying “enough time has passed to show that Mr. Armstrong has made amends.” .
“If I were constantly punished for the mistakes I made in my past, [WJBE] wouldn’t exist — nor would this station be recognized for the programming we bring to Knoxville,” Armstrong, a former state representative in the Tennessee General Assembly, told NPR.
“[The judge] I looked beyond my flaws and saw the needs of the community,” he added.
WJBE is known for being a staple in the Knoxville area, serving as a news source for the black community – being a very community-oriented station, Armstrong said.
The station broadcasts local news and weather, religious services, emerging artists, free advertising for struggling small businesses and, in recent years, information about the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for the past two years, WJBE — whose call letters honor its original owner, the Godfather of Soul James Brown — has fought with the FCC so Armstrong could own a radio station. radio with integrity after his conviction in 2016 for making a false declaration on his tax return.
The agency argued that Armstrong violated property rules because of his prior conviction as it attempted to implement its 33-year-old character qualification policy for radio licensees.
“It’s not like something happened, say, this year or last year — we’re talking about something that happened in 2008,” Armstrong told NPR in a June 2023 interview .
Nearly 15 years ago, Armstrong and a partner legally purchased cigarette tax stamps that were then resold for profit following the Tennessee legislature’s vote to increase the tax on cigarettes in the state, according to the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm that helped Armstrong fight. the case.
His accountant allegedly did not properly pay taxes on this sale, and as a result, Armstrong got into trouble with the IRS.
In 2016, Armstrong was acquitted of most of the charges against him and was convicted of just one count, that of making a false statement on his tax return. (His accountant, Charles Stivers, was convicted of tax fraud and given probation in 2017.)
Armstrong’s civil rights, including his right to vote, were restored in 2020. In 2017, Armstrong says he informed the FCC of his conviction, which he said had not caused any problems until 2022.
But despite best efforts, the FCC has consistently expressed concerns about his ability to lead the WJBE.
Andrew Ward, the attorney who represented Armstrong in the case, told NPR that a past personal tax violation should not disqualify someone from holding a broadcast license.
“The government should not prevent people from working because of irrelevant criminal convictions,” Ward said. “It happens all the time. It was irrational here and it’s irrational when it happens anywhere.”
The FCC did not immediately respond to NPR’s request for comment regarding Armstrong’s case. The agency has the option to appeal last week’s decision, but it’s unclear whether it will choose to do so.