Joe Armstrong, owner of radio station WJBE in Knoxville

Institute for Justice

Joseph Armstrong has a criminal record, but he can vote. A former longtime Tennessee state legislator, he can receive his public pension. What he may not be able to do, a federal agency is saying, is run the radio station he’s owned for more than a decade.

A cornerstone of the local Black community, WJBE, 1040AM, is Knoxville’s only Black-owned radio station. The station’s call sign pays homage to the original station, also bearing the same name, that was once owned by “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown. 

The station’s rich history is actually entwined with Armstrong’s own. He worked there as a salesman in the 1970s to pay his way through college at the University of Tennessee. After Brown sold WJBE in 1979, it went through multiple owners and call letters and eventually went off air in the late 1980s, leaving Knoxville without a Black-owned and -focused station. That is, until Armstrong came in.

In 2012, Armstrong, who is Black, took “virtually all” his life savings to buy a local radio station and resurrect the WJBE name.

“I saw that there was a need,” Armstrong said to CBS News. “It was almost embarrassing when people asked, ‘Where’s your Black station?'” 

The Federal Communications Commission, however, has said that his felony conviction raises questions under the Commission’s Character Policy. That’s because of Armstrong’s criminal record — and some late paperwork. 

In 2007, while still serving in the Tennessee House, Armstrong and a partner legally purchased cigarette tax stamps and sold them at a profit of approximately $330,000 following the legislature’s increase in the state’s cigarette tax. But he did not include the profit on his federal 2008 individual income tax return, which led to a conviction for filing a false statement on a tax return. In 2017, he was sentenced to three years’ probation, which included six months of house arrest, ordered to pay nearly $100,000 in restitution to the federal government and a $40,000 fine, and required to perform 300 hours of community service. 

At his sentencing, the presiding judge said Armstrong “led an exemplary life until this occurrence,” calling his profiting off legislation “unethical and immoral, but not illegal.”

Tony Anderson, the retired U.S. chief probations officer who oversaw Anderson’s probation, noted in a letter of support that Armstrong “complied with each and every condition as ordered by the Court” and “continues to be a very responsible, reliable, forthright, and well-respected individual in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the surrounding area.”

But the FCC says it is concerned about whether Armstrong, as the licensee, “is likely to be forthright” in his dealings with the commission.

In 2022, five years after his sentencing, Armstrong received notice that the FCC would commence proceedings to determine whether to revoke the broadcast license under which the station operates. The commission claims this is due to his criminal past and some filing deadlines he missed, citing its character qualification policy from 1990, which says a licensee must have “the requisite propensity to obey the law.” 

One of those deadlines had to do with the station’s “Issues and Programs” list, a required report that WJBE admittedly failed to properly upload to the FCC’s public file between 2018 and 2020.

“In no way did I ever attempt or intend to hide anything from the Commission,” Armstrong wrote in an official declaration before the court, “instead, I missed these filing deadlines because of WJBE’s small staff, administrative oversight, and my poor health at the time.”

But missing this deadline appears to be relatively commonplace in Tennessee. According to FCC data provided by Armstrong’s counsel, roughly a third of the AM stations in the Volunteer State had their licenses renewed despite failures to properly file their “Issues and Programs” list.

Lawyers at the Institute for Justice have taken on Armstrong’s case. His attorney, Andrew Ward, argues his client’s criminal history is irrelevant to his ability to own and operate WJBE in a responsible manner.

“Joe’s single conviction is about conduct that occurred 14 years ago and had nothing to do with WJBE,” Ward told CBS News, “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.”

The FCC may disagree with Ward’s defense. Citing that same character qualification policy, they believe “a propensity to comply with the law generally is relevant to the Commission’s public interest analysis and that an applicant’s or licensee’s willingness to violate other laws, and, in particular, to commit felonies, also bears on our confidence that an applicant or licensee will conform to FCC rules and policies.”

CBS News spoke with the FCC, which declined to comment specifically on Armstrong’s pending case or whether it planned to revisit the 33-year-old policy.

“The Commission has a duty to ensure that everyone holding a license to use the public airwaves does so in the public interest,” said Paloma Perez, the FCC press secretary, in an email. “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 said “In order to evaluate these factors, and to provide due process to the licensee, any licensee with a felony conviction is placed into hearing, usually at the time of the licensee’s renewal application.”

Armstrong’s ongoing litigation with the FCC mirrors a recent case out of Alabama. Michael G. Hubbard, a White man and the former speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, was convicted in 2016 by a jury of violating 12 counts of the Alabama Ethics Code and was sentenced to 28 months in prison.

Hubbard is also the president and CEO of Auburn Network Inc., which owns and operates multiple radio stations across Alabama. The FCC also questioned whether Hubbard “possesses the requisite qualifications to remain a Commission licensee in light of his felony convictions.”

After months of litigation, the FCC ultimately ruled that no “persuasive evidence” had been introduced to suggest that Hubbard is likely to behave dishonestly with the Commission.

“His activities do not represent the kind of moral turpitude that would make them of the ‘shock the conscience’ variety,” the FCC said in its ruling, “Nor do they involve fraud, bribery, perjury, or bodily injury.”

For Armstrong, he believes he has paid his debt to society and provides an important service to the community — and is demonstrating that someone with a felony can still reach out, do the right thing in the community and give young people an example of pursuing opportunities in communications.

“The FCC, if they look at Joe Armstrong and say, well, is this station truly doing what they’re supposed to do when it comes to public good,” he said. “And they can’t  argue with that, that I’m, that I am doing it. And I’m doing it in such a way that — that’s bringing pride to this community.”