June 12th, 2007

Pajaro Valley Ponders Bus Radio, Billed as Alternative to Raunchy Drive-Time Fare

By Donna Jones
Santa Cruz Sentinel

If music soothes the savage beast, a catchy tune might be the ticket for calming unruly school bus riders.

That’s the idea behind Bus Radio Inc., a Needham, Mass.-based company that hopes to beam what it describes as age-appropriate music into 10,000 school buses nationwide in the fall.

The catch: Kids will have to listen to up to 8 minutes of advertising for each hour of music, a provision that turns off critics.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District trustees will consider Wednesday whether to accept Bus Radio’s offer of free equipment and programming. But interim Superintendent Mary Anne Mays will recommend tabling the proposal as the potential for controversy surfaced Monday.

In a flashback to squabbles a few years back over the video-based Channel One, which provides a daily public affairs program free to schools in exchange for advertising time, parents and advocacy groups across the country are fighting Bus Radio.

Last month, a Louisville, Ky., school board nixed a deal with Bus Radio after parents complained, and Massachusetts legislators are considering passing a law to ban advertising from schools at least in part in response to Bus Radio.

“This entire thing is designed to deliver kids to marketers,” said Josh Golin, program manager for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a national advocacy group based in Boston.

Golin said children are exposed to too much advertising and don’t need to be force fed more on their way to and from school. What’s particularly worrisome, he said, is that unlike commercial AM/FM radio stations, Bus Radio’s ads will be targeted to children.

Kids might tune out a commercial for a used car lot, but maybe not an ad for a cell phone or junk food, he said.

“Something that’s going to grab their attention, that’s much more of a concern,” Golin said.

But Steven Shulman, president of Bus Radio, said unlike broadcast stations, there won’t be ads for beer or other products unsuitable for children.

School buses throughout the country already are outfitted with AM/FM radios to keep students engaged in something other than rowdiness, bullying and fighting, Shulman said.

Bus Radio, which launched in 2006, not only provides appropriate programming, but the computer devices installed on buses come with global position systems and panic buttons designed to improve security, he said.

“Critics are screaming and yelling about a 30-second yogurt ad, when in reality we are creating an environment that if something really happens, students can get really hurt, or the security on the school bus gets violated, we have a device that helps on those situations,” Shulman said.

Jim Miller, Pajaro Valley’s transportation director, said his drivers were sold on Bus Radio after the district piloted the system in three buses last month.

He said Bus Radio’s offer to share ad revenue generated by the program isn’t what’s driving interest. Drivers often use the bus radios to calm their young passengers, and the drivers and students who tuned into Bus Radio during the test liked what they heard.

“We’re not looking at this as a moneymaker,” Miller said. “We want to have some control over the types of music and what kids are listening to”

The Gilroy Unified School District already has agreed to install Bus Radio on its 43 buses, transportation supervisor Darren Salo said. Gilroy’s bus drivers also like to use the radio to entertain riders, but district policy doesn’t permit them to tune into morning shows that have any kind of “provocative or suggestive materials,” he said.

“You’re very limited in morning shows,” Salo said. “Anymore there’s very few you can listen to”

Still, in the Pajaro Valley, some are concerned the benefit might not outweigh the cost to students. Monday, board President Doug Keegan said he wasn’t aware of the issues playing out nationally about Bus Radio, but they pose legitimate concerns, he said.

“We may need to look into it a little more closely,” he said.

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