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FCC says Knoxville's only Black-owned radio station can stay

WJBE's owner, Joe Armstrong, was previously convicted of lying on tax forms, which put his broadcasting license in jeopardy.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — A Thursday ruling from the Federal Communications Commission decided Joe Armstrong, owner of WJBE, can keep his broadcast license. 

His license was under review due to a possible "question of character," according to the FCC, stemming from a felony conviction of lying on tax returns.

"I just felt extremely grateful," Armstrong said. "And I felt that we had a judge that looked at what we were doing, and, and issued a ruling."

Armstrong, who is a former Tennessee State Representative, filed a false and fraudulent tax return with the IRS in 2008. He was convicted of the felony charge in 2016 and sentenced to three years probation, with six months of house arrest in 2017. 

Armstrong followed all court orders, including paying retributions and fines totaling almost $140,000 and completing 300 hours of community service. He has since gotten his voting rights back.

In March 2022, the FCC decided to conduct a hearing looking into Armstrong's past mistakes, including failing to notify the commission of his charges on time. 

"I felt that it was unjustified because I felt that I had made restitution," Armstrong said. "Not only as far as the taxes — paid my fine, did community service — and so the question is, how long whenever someone has been charged or convicted of offenses must they suffer?"

They decided the incidents should not prevent him from holding the license. Rev. Renee Kesler, President of the Beck Cultural Center, said the FCC made the right decision. 

"I believe that it was always going to come down to the good thing," Kesler said. "That the people who make laws would recognize that we always must do right, particularly when it comes to a group of people that have been so disenfranchised for so many years."

WJBE was established in 1968 by James Brown. Armstrong says he worked for Brown to eventually graduate from the University of Tennessee and gained a love for radio. In 2005 it went dark until Armstrong said he took his life savings to buy a radio station and change the call letters to pay homage to Brown.

"That radio station is not only serving in that role to help us to continue to connect our community," Kesler said. "But it itself is a part of history."

WJBE plays R&B music and hip-hop but also plays gospel music and broadcasts church sermons. 

"We want to continue to build a legacy, not only James Brown, but build a legacy of R&B music, and build a legacy of creating community-based radio, TV stations, and how important it is for us to have communications and getting the real truth out there," he said.

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