October 10th, 2007

Palm Beach County schools consider bus radios with 'age-appropriate' music

By Marc Freeman
South Florida Sun Sentinel

Look out, local disc jockeys. Palm Beach County school officials are ready to throw you under the bus.

To seize control of radio broadcasts on school buses, the School Board today will consider accepting a free trial of a national radio show from suburban Boston called Bus Radio ó programming under attack by some consumer advocates.

In a limited roll-out this fall, 200 of the school district’s 645 buses would be equipped with new radios that play pre-programmed, Top 40 songs with “age-appropriate content,” public safety messages and commercials, administrators say. These devices, which also have AM/FM tuners, would replace radios on the buses that drivers now use at their discretion.

Driver Angela Burgess predicts students will tune out the new sound.

“The kids will listen to their own CDs, iPods and radios,” said Burgess, who drives routes in north county. “They like their own types of music.”

District officials say they hope Bus Radio leads to fewer student fights and disruptions, and removes exposure to offensive and sexually explicit lyrics on local radio stations.

“If you don’t entertain the students, then they try to entertain themselves,” said Yevola Falana, school district transportation director, who has the company’s assurances that the commercials won’t feature objectionable fare such as fast food or products to aid sexual dysfunction.

“The marketing and solicitations will definitely have to be acceptable,” Falana said. “At least we have control over what they are listening to.”

But the district will continue to allow students to carry and listen to portable MP3 and other music players.

The School Board welcomed advertising inside buses in 2004, hoping for a cut of ad sales. Board members said the ads were OK as long as they didn’t promote tobacco, alcohol or condoms.

If the radio trial succeeds, officials have the option of putting it on all buses next year, also at no cost. The radios also feature similar programming for midday school field trips. There are different shows for the elementary, middle and high school levels. About 65,000 of the district’s 168,500 students receive transportation to and from school.

By expanding into Florida, two-year-old Bus Radio wants to build its captive audience that already reaches 1 million riders on 10,000 school buses in 100 districts from coast to coast, said President Steven Shulman. His company’s Web sites are http://www.busradio.org and http://www.busradio.com.

Seminole County’s School Board also is considering the program today, for a 53-bus trial. The service debuted this month to positive reviews in Nassau County, near the Georgia border.

“So far everything’s fine with it,” said David Buchanan, transportation director for school district based in Fernandina Beach. About 6,500 students ride 140 buses daily, and half the fleet has the radios.

Administrators wanted them as a tool to reduce discipline problems; a Nassau County district policy prohibits using portable electronics, Buchanan said.

On Tuesday the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood sent e-mails urging the Palm Beach and Seminole county school boards to reject the free radios. The group, which fights “harmful marketing” to children, says the National PTA and other organizations joined their cause.

“It’s essential that we work together to stop this latest escalation in the commercial assault on children,” said director Susan Linn, on the campaign’s Web site, http://www.commercialexploitation.org.

Josh Golin, the group’s associate director, said Palm Beach County students would be harmed if the School Board replaces existing radios with Bus Radio. “By trying to solve one problem, it’s creating another,” he said. “It’s student-targeted marketing.”

Bus Radio’s Shulman said the company allows ads by only “socially responsible” sponsors. He said his station is a huge improvement over FM stations and their provocative lyrics and inappropriate ads.

“We’re the heroes,” he said. “We’re not the villains.”


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