NASHVILLE, N.C. (AP) _ The chairman of a company accused of swindling thousands of investors who bought FM radio partnerships pleaded guilty Friday to fraud and conspiracy charges.

Ralph Savage, 56, of Phenix City, Ala., is scheduled to be sentenced in January in Nash County Superior Court. He faces a maximum sentence of 17 years in prison and a fine of $7,500. He is free on $50,000 unsecured bond.

Also Friday, a co-defendant, Thomas Root, 39, was sentenced to 15 years and fined $5,000. Root, a former Washington lawyer, set up the partnerships sold by Savage's Sonrise Management Services of Columbus, Ga.

Root pleaded no contest to 360 charges of fraud and four counts of conspiracy. Savage pleaded guilty to the same charges.

''We want to send a message out today in open court that securities fraud will not be tolerated in North Carolina,'' said Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten, whose office investigated the case.

More than 3,000 investors from several states bought the Sonrise limited partnerships in the past few years and lost more than $16 million, Edmisten said.

Two other Sonrise employees previously admitted guilt. Company president Eugene White, who founded the firm with Savage, pleaded guilty to similar charges and was sentenced to 17 years in a North Carolina prison. Carl Hurlebaus paid a $100,000 fine levied by the secretary of state and wasn't charged.

Sonrise employed hundreds of salesmen to peddle shares in $100,000 partnerships that applied for low-power FM radio construction permits from the Federal Communications Commission. The company sold 163 partnerships, worth $16.3 million, but obtained only three permits, said Eugene Cella, chief enforcement attorney for the secretary of state.

The case was already under investigation when Root attracted national attention in 1989 by crashing his plane into the Atlantic Ocean near the Bahamas.

He blacked out while flying alone from Washington to North Carolina. His plane flew on autopilot until it ran out of gas and crashed. He had a gunshot wound that never was explained.

Root already has pleaded guilty to federal fraud, counterfeiting and forgery charges and was sentenced in January to 33 months in federal prison. He began serving the sentence in June. Superior Court Judge Frank Brown ruled that a portion of Root's state sentence will be served concurrent with the federal sentence.