Black-owned Knoxville radio station retains license – Tennessee Lookout

Knoxville’s only Black-owned radio station —with its local jazz shows, Sunday morning Gospel and weekday hip hop and R&B programming — will remain on air, a Federal Communications Commission judge ruled last week.

For nearly two years, “Jammin” 99.7 FM/1040 WJBE has been the target of FCC enforcement officials, who invoked a federal character clause in arguing the station’s license should be revoked as a result of its owner’s 2016 tax conviction.

Station owner Joe Armstrong, who served as a state representative for nearly three decades before his conviction, expressed relief Friday after getting word an FCC administrative judge had rejected those claims.

Former Tennessee Representative Joe Armstrong, who runs WJBE, Knoxville’s only Black-only radio station. (Photo: Institute for Justice)

“It’s given me some restless nights,” said Armstrong. “It’s been about the employees not knowing they’re going to have a job the next day or not and it’s been about the community. Losing this station would have been a loss to Black businesses and the community.”

Last week’s decision by Judge Jane Hinckley concluded the conviction was an isolated event and “enough time has elapsed to show that Mr. Armstrong has remediated his wrong.” 

The judge also cited significant community support for the station from within Knoxville, which had no Black broadcasting outlet when Armstrong in 2012 revived the station once owned by soul singer James Brown.

Attorneys for Armstrong have questioned why the FCC’s enforcement bureau decided to pursue license revocation against Armstrong seven years after his conviction. Armstrong voluntarily reported his conviction to the FCC in 2017, completed his sentence and has not had any convictions — or complaints against the station — since then. 

FCC moves to revoke license of Knoxville’s only Black-owned radio station

“We’re thrilled for Joe,” said Andrew Ward, an attorney representing Armstrong. “WJBE is a wonderful fixture in the community. Legally, the government shouldn’t punish people for old convictions.”

Ward’s firm, the Institute for Justice, represented Armstrong without charge. Ward called the case an unfortunate example of irrational government laws that seek to permanently punish people for old crimes. Nationwide, there are more than 15,000 laws that limit jobs for people with records, according to the firm.

Armstrong was a longtime Democrat state representative, first elected to office in 1988 to represent Knoxville and parts of east Tennessee. 

In 2016, he was convicted of making a false statement on his 2008 tax return. Armstrong resigned from the legislature and completed his sentence, which included house arrest, probation, community service and paying back the IRS. 

Armstrong bought the radio station in 2012 and says he draws no salary, calling it a labor of love. WJBE’s was first established in 1968 by entertainer James Brown, who gave it its call letters — an acronym for “James Brown Entertainment.” 

It is one of six Black-owned radio stations in Tennessee, according to the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. 

The FCC has the option of appealing last week’s decision. Spokesperson Katie Gorscak on Friday declined to comment on the case. 

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