FCC Uses Criminal Background Against A Black-Owned Radio Station’s Access To Licensing

FCC Uses Criminal Background Against A Black-Owned Radio Station’s Access To Licensing

The only Black-owned radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee, is in jeopardy of losing its license, says the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), due to the owner’s prior felony conviction, WFAE 90.7 reports.

The FCC is threatening to revoke the broadcast license of WJBE 99.7 FM/1040 AM because of a tax crime conviction against owner Joe Armstrong, which he says happened years before he took ownership of the station in 2012. “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.

The issue started after Armstrong and a partner legally bought cigarette tax stamps that were then sold for a profit after the Tennessee legislature voted to increase the state’s cigarette tax. His accountant reportedly did not properly pay the taxes on this sale which put Armstrong in a world of trouble with the IRS. However, he was acquitted in 2016 of most of the charges but was convicted of two counts of federal tax fraud.

He never hid his legal troubles, telling the FCC about it in 2017, and says he’s had no issues until now. “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. In 2022, the FCC sent a notice to Armstrong saying they would continue proceedings to determine whether or not to revoke the broadcast license claiming they are concerned if the former Tennessee state legislator, as the licensee, “is likely to be forthright.”

According to CBS News, the commission claims that due to his criminal past and some filing deadlines he missed, having a license violated their character qualification policy started in 1990, which states that a licensee must have “the requisite propensity to obey the law.” Armstrong is being represented by lawyers at the Institute for Justice, who argue their client’s criminal history is irrelevant to his ability to own and operate WJBE responsibly. “Joe’s single conviction is about conduct that occurred 14 years ago and had nothing to do with WJBE,” attorney Andrew Ward said. “His actual record at the station has shown him to be a responsible licensee and boon to an underserved community for more than a decade.”