May 21st, 2007

Schools May Add Music, Ads on Buses

By Antoinette Konz
Louisville Courier-Journal

Jefferson Board Could OK Radios

Jefferson County Public Schools students who ride the bus will find music in their ears beginning in August if the school board approves a contract tonight with a national bus radio company.

The three-year agreement calls for Massachusetts-based Bus Radio Inc. to install and maintain custom-designed radios and provide age-appropriate music, commercials and public-service announcements to Jefferson County’s 60,000 bused students—at no cost to the district, said Rick Caple, director of transportation for the district.

The deal would also provide JCPS with up to $150,000 annually in shared advertising revenue—enough to buy two new buses each year, he said. And the radios would be equipped with Global Positioning System devices that would allow a driver to press a button alerting authorities to the bus’s location in an emergency.

“We think this is a win-win situation,” Caple said. “This is an option that we don’t have to pay for. If we don’t feel that (the music or commercials are) age-appropriate, we can turn it off. This is a lot better than what they hear on the radio every day.”

Fewer than 2 percent of the district’s 1,000 buses have AM/FM radios, Caple said, compared with about 60 percent of all school buses in Kentucky. And studies have shown that music can help soothe students and provide a calmer environment, he said.

However, officials with two national children’s advocacy groups are asking the Jefferson County school board to be cautious before agreeing to such a deal.

Josh Golin, program manager for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, sent a letter to board members Friday, asking them to vote against the contract. His organization sent similar letters to every school superintendent in Massachusetts after the service was offered there.

“There is entirely too much advertising that is already aimed at children,” said Golin, who is based just outside Boston. “The last thing they need is for their school to force them to listen to even more.”

Incoming Jefferson County Superintendent Sheldon Berman, now chief of Hudson, Mass., Public Schools, said Friday that his school board has a strict policy against advertisements—a policy that he supports.

“Students are confronted with a lot of ads on television and radio, and I think we should preserve educational space as educational space,” Berman said.

Bus Radio Inc. was launched at the start of the 2006-07 school year in 26 districts in 11 states, providing music and commercials for about 1,000 buses and 100,000 students. This fall, the radios will be in roughly 10,000 buses serving more than 1 million students, said Steve Shulman, president of Bus Radio Inc.

Under the proposed Jefferson County contract, each broadcast hour would have about 44 minutes of music and news, eight minutes of advertising, six minutes of public-service announcements and two minutes of contests, according to the company’s Web site, http://www.busradio.com.

Elementary students would hear commercials and music focused toward their age group, and the same would go for middle and high school students, Shulman said.

“We have a panel that determines what music and what ads are appropriate for each age level,” he said, adding that the type of music his company plays includes “clean” Top 40 hits.

Jefferson County parents have mixed reactions to the proposal, with some predicting it would decrease behavioral problems while others said they didn’t feel comfortable with ads targeting their children.

“I just don’t think a school bus is an appropriate place to advertise,” said Julie Newsome, whose two children ride the bus to Lowe Elementary School. “My kids like to read on their way to school, and there is no way they can do that with music blaring at them.”

Michael Gaines, whose son rides the bus to Crosby Middle School, said he thinks the concept is a good idea.

“I think it would be a pleasant distraction,” he said. “I think kids need to relax, and I would rather have my son listen to music that is monitored and deemed age-appropriate than to music that is not.”

A glance at the company’s Web site yesterday showed the Top 10 songs for students ages 6-12 included artists such as Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry and Diddy. For students ages 13-17, the top songs included artists such as Fergie, Akon and Omarion.

Jim Metrock, president of Obligation Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based child advocacy organization, said he questions whether the music is really as clean as advertised by the company.

“Although Bus Radio promotes their ‘clean’ music as a major reason to sign up, their website plugs some of the raunchiest acts in music,” Metrock wrote to the school board.

Metrock said Jefferson County would be a “big prize” for Bus Radio to add to its client roster.

“Your district will be their biggest catch so far,” he wrote. “Your experience with this company will be looked at by other school districts and the public. You don’t need the spotlight that comes with this deal.”

Shulman said Jefferson County would not be his company’s largest district. He said there are “several more” that are larger, but would not name the schools or locations.

He also would not name specific advertisers, saying only that the commercials feature products from the entertainment, apparel, education, electronics and health industries. He said his company has more than 100,000 songs in its music library.

“We have the same goals as children’s advocacy groups,” Shulman said. “We want the children to be safe. Right now, some of the music being played on the radio is not appropriate. We don’t play any music that comes with a parental advisory on it.”

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