October 11th, 2007

How did board allow BusRadio onboard?

By Logan Jenkins
San Diego Union Tribune

Listen, it doesn’t much matter what I think about the practical merits of BusRadio, the “free” programming currently downloaded into 36 San Marcos school buses.

Reasonable minds can disagree on that score.

What is important, it seems to me, is how automatically the San Marcos school board approved a contract with a controversial company.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll cop to being a puritan.

In my straitlaced world view, a Berlin wall should separate the schoolhouse from the marketplace. Kids deserve a safe harbor from the bombardment of sales pitches on TV, billboards, radio and the Internet.

I’ve ragged on Channel One, the ad-supported cable TV program that many schools welcome into classrooms in exchange for “free” satellite and TV equipment.

I’ve taken shots at ZapMe!, which provides “free” computers to schools. The catch? On-screen advertising aimed at kids.

Both are bargains only Faust could love.

I’ve also hectored school boards for partnering with Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, assisting the soft-drink dealers in their mission of turning American kids into fat diabetic caffeine junkies.

Nevertheless, I concede that the ethical line can blur.

Daily newspapers belong in my ideal classroom, yet they contain ads. Advertising supports yearbooks, as well as the student newspaper. The influence of advertising is a legitimate course of academic study.

Absolute ad purity on campus is impossible to imagine.

One last caveat.

I’d rather steer an 18-wheeler with a radioactive payload down the Grapevine than drive a yellow bus, filled with 60 excitable children, back and forth to school.

It’s a tough job, and the cargo is so precious. If I had to perform under that pressure, I’d probably endorse most any calming measure, including mandatory medication (for me and the hormonally charged passengers).

I’d certainly welcome surveillance cameras, a tactic reviewed in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune story.

Even so, I was surprised to learn in the same news story that BusRadio had been installed in San Marcos school buses without full public debate. No other district in the county has signed on with the Massachusetts-based company, which is something of a lightning rod.

In its three-year history, BusRadio has grown rapidly. According to a company spokesman, BusRadio is piped into 10,000 buses. On any given school day, almost a million children in 26 states are exposed to an age-appropriate blend of music, DJ patter, public service announcements, contests – and eight minutes of advertising.

The honeyed lure is obvious: At no cost to the district, BusRadio installs receivers and speakers (or improves existing ones) and throws in a PA system. In San Marcos, this amounted to about $18,000 worth of equipment and labor, according to district transportation officials.

BusRadio’s programs are screened by a panel that includes a child psychologist and a former school superintendent, the company says. The bus driver can turn off music or ads he or she considers inappropriate.

As a further sweetener, the BusRadio system includes a GPS system, which means the location of the bus is never unknown.

The company’s limited research shows that kids behave better if they’re entertained.

BusRadio also emphasizes that the “corporate sponsorships” are “responsible.” Examples: Answer.com, Disney and Nickelodeon. No junk foods, the company stresses.

You can argue that BusRadio represents an audio improvement in San Marcos, where bus drivers used to play ad-heavy AM stations that could get raunchy. (If you think BusRadio is bad, you should have heard what we had last year!)

But if you turn to the Web site of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, one of the several advocacy groups opposed to school-based marketing, you’ll see a photograph of Raffi Cavoukian, the popular children’s singer, holding a sign: “Turn Off BusRadio.”

He’s not alone. In fact, several school districts in the Northeast have reneged on BusRadio contracts following parental protests.

BusRadio may be the best thing to pacify kids since Ritalin, but at the very least, the pros and cons should be debated in public before signing on the dotted line.

In San Marcos, however, the contract was adopted several months ago with no memorable public debate, school officials told me.

I called school board president Mary Borevitz to sound her out.

She said she had yet to listen to BusRadio but had heard good things.

And what about the advertising? I asked.

“Do your homework,” she chided, asserting that there was no advertising on BusRadio.

I wised her up as politely as I could.

Still, I was floored.

Here’s a board member who wasn’t aware that BusRadio is driven by ad dollars. (In fact, under the contract, the district receives a sliver of the revenue.)

Evidently, the trustees, who are responsible for policy, signed off on a glowing packet of boiler-plate information provided by the administration.

Looking back, it seems it’s the board that failed to do its homework.


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