August 21st, 2007

Commercial Radio Service Targets School-Bus Riders

By Eric M. Hanson
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

The Robbinsdale School District has signed on with Bus Radio, a for-profit business that delivers a captive student audience to advertisers. The company says that its programming is more age-appropriate than typical drive-time AM/FM radio fare.

When some kids in the Robbinsdale School District board a bus to go back to school in a couple weeks, they’ll be exposed to a new sound—and an early lesson in what targeted marketing is all about.

The district has signed on with a Massachusetts company that provides audio equipment and music programming at no charge to school districts, in exchange for advertising dollars from companies that pay to pitch to an audience of kids on school buses.

Steven Shulman, president of Bus Radio, said his company’s programming is selected and reviewed to be “age-appropriate,” rather than the sometimes raunchy and suggestive music and banter that kids can hear during drive time on most commercial radio stations.

Bus Radio content varies depending on the age of the audience—drivers can switch to a different program with each new load of kids.

“School buses have had AM/FM radio since school buses were invented,” Shulman said. “The reason why is because it helps the behavior on the school buses. It keeps the kids engaged. The problem with what is currently available with AM/FM is that it’s geared to the 18-plus demographic.”

But the idea of a school district trading its student “audience” for the benefit of corporate advertisers has drawn criticism from national watchdog groups such as Commercial Alert, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Obligation, Inc., which are campaigning against Bus Radio. Children already are exposed to too much advertising outside of school, these groups say, and it isn’t the business of school districts to deliver more audience share to corporate advertisers and marketers.

Music and safety

In addition to music, talk and commercials, Bus Radio’s programming includes a few minutes of public-service announcements (PSAs) and safety messages geared to bus drivers and riders.

According to the company, Bus Radio airs six minutes of PSAs per hour, along with 44 minutes of music, two minutes of contests and eight minutes of commercials.

That’s fewer commercial minutes per hour than kids would hear on ordinary commercial stations, Shulman noted, and the advertising doesn’t include spots for R-rated movies, alcoholic beverages or other adult products and services.

Bus Radio also markets itself as a safety service, because the device that receives content downloads also uses GPS and an emergency notification dialer, which districts can use to track buses and contact local authorities.

An appropriate target?

Jim Metrock, a former steel-industry businessman and president of the Alabama-based watchdog group Obligation, Inc., has campaigned against the commercialization of classrooms since ChannelOne launched its in-school television network more than a decade ago.

“These folks think: Here’s a captive audience, they’re not going anywhere, and we’re going to make a ton of money off of ‘em,” Metrock said. “I don’t think a captive audience of schoolchildren, in a classroom or on a bus, should be subjected to commercial advertising.”

Of course, kids already are subjected to countless commercial messages away from school—and within the school day, if they read a newspaper in class or in the library, or if a school-bus driver tunes to commercial radio.

A misuse of school time?

But “that’s not specifically aimed at those kids,” Metrock said, and it’s not done with the explicit support of public school systems. “They’re getting specific advertisements for this demographic, and that’s a misuse of school time and bus time.”

In May, a Kentucky school board decided against signing-up with Bus Radio after hearing community opposition, according to a report in the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Jeff Dehler, the Robbinsdale district’s communications director, said the district was not aware of the Kentucky school board’s decision or of a campaign against Bus Radio.

“It’s a difficult question: How much commercialism should we expose our students to?”

For decades, Dehler said, the printing costs for school yearbooks have been supported by advertising, and ads also line the fences of athletic fields at the district’s schools and have helped pay for concession stands and even new fields.

“Is advertising appropriate with students? At the right times, it is,” he said. “This is a free radio service that has appropriate messages for kids, and includes safety messages that Bus Radio says are going to be a benefit to our students.”

The district will monitor the content to evaluate whether the service delivers what has been promised, Dehler said, and the programming will begin with a test rollout of 50 buses in the district’s fleet of 120.

The Robbinsdale district—which includes Robbinsdale, New Hope, Crystal and parts of Plymouth, Golden Valley, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center—is one of four in the state that have signed contracts with Bus Radio. The company declined to provide the names of the other districts.

State not tracking Bus Radio

Becca Stark, deputy director of communications for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the department is not aware of which other districts have signed on with Bus Radio, because it does not keep track of the contracts. Unlike in the state of New York, the Minnesota education department does not forbid commercial promotional activity on school premises, Stark said.

As of last spring, Bus Radio’s Shulman said, the company was feeding content to 1,000 buses, with a national audience of more than 100,000 students.

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