Some Massachusetts school buses soon will be equipped with a private radio network that plays age-appropriate content for students to listen to on their way to and from school, including music, games, safety tips, and advertisements.
BusRadio, the Needham, Mass., company that plans to implement the programming, bills its service as a way to keep kids entertained and well behaved while riding the bus. Critics of the service say it’s just another vehicle for delivering ads to kids–think “Channel One” on wheels.
During a one-hour show, BusRadio says, students will hear 44 minutes of music and news, six minutes of public service announcements, eight minutes of corporate sponsorships, and two minutes of contests.
The concept for the program arose from the idea that, while the majority of school buses have AM/FM radio, the content played on those stations often is geared to the 18-and-older crowd and is not appropriate for younger children, said Steven Shulman, the company’s president.
“Instead of kids listening to shock-jock type programming with inappropriate songs and advertising, we decided that we’d give schools the choice of playing programming that is appropriate for students,” he said.
BusRadio operates on a closed network and is broadcast into school buses through a device on the bus. The AM/FM radio can still be played at any time. BusRadio is free to school systems, Shulman said, and revenue comes from age-appropriate sponsors. Schools receive a portion of the revenue from sponsorships and can use this money to help pay for transportation costs, he said.
Commercial Alert, an organization that seeks to keep commercialism away from children, sent a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, urging him to “stop BusRadio from using the state’s compulsory school laws to deliver a captive audience of schoolchildren into the arms of the advertising industry.”
“Children would have to listen to music, service spots, and eight minutes of commercial advertising per hour,” the letter says. “They would have no choice, and neither would their parents. The compulsory school laws would become a pretext for compulsory listening to commercial propaganda. In addition, you would be intentionally interfering with the ability of students’ [sic] to read, pray, or do homework on the school bus.”
With lobbying by Commercial Alert, the Senate Commerce Committee in June approved an amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to require the Federal Communications Commission to study BusRadio and determine whether it is “in the public interest.” The amendment was adopted by voice vote; there were no objections.
School officials and parents do have a say in what is broadcast, Shulman said, because each district has a board made up of parents and officials who have approved BusRadio content. If a parent hears something on the program that he or she deems inappropriate, that parent can take the issue to BusRadio’s board for review and can have that element deleted from all future programming.
Students also have a choice in what they’re listening to, Shulman added: Students vote for the songs they would like to hear each day.
“We want to have responsible sponsors on the programming,” he said, noting that, for example, a food advertiser reportedly will be accepted only if its advertisement promotes healthy food.
Approximately 1,000 students in the Woburn, Mass., school district piloted BusRadio last spring. Shulman said the company hired a third-party research firm, Edison Media, to measure whether or not BusRadio had an impact on student behavior and keeping students calm on the bus. It did, Shulman said, and “that’s why we decided to move forward, because of the safety factor.”
BusRadio will launch in more Massachusetts school districts this fall, reaching about 100,000 students, and plans to expand to other states in 2007, Shulman said.
Shulman compared the radio sponsorships to television commercials that air during children’s shows. “Wouldn’t it be great,” he said, “assuming that parents didn’t like an ad during a television show, if they could call up that station or company and request that the ad never be played again in their home?”