October 9th, 2007

Seminole kids could get earful on the bus

By Dave Weber
Orlando Sun-Sentinel

Kids on Seminole County school buses may be a captive audience for a medley of carefully screened rock songs, targeted advertisements and FCAT lessons if the School Board signs on with a Massachusetts company peddling the package.

School-district officials, who will make a decision tonight, say the radio program will keep students busy so bus drivers can concentrate on the road. The district will earn a share of advertising revenue, too, although it won’t amount to much—perhaps as little as $7,000 a year.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about filling kids’ ears with ads on the way to school.

Several organizations—including the PTA and the National Council of Churches USA—oppose the radio program, which is popping up on school buses around the country. They say it’s a carefully crafted advertising scheme aimed at children.

Bus Radio of Needham, Mass., wants the Seminole school district to test its daily radio program on 53 buses that about 4,800 students ride to school and home each day. If it’s a success, the show that comes in on special radios the company will provide for free could be expanded to the district’s fleet of 400 buses serving 30,000 students.

School districts in Nassau and Monroe counties already have signed up, and company officials say they are chasing several others. In Central Florida, Bus Radio has the ear of Osceola and Brevard districts, although they have not made a decision.

Nationwide, about 7,500 buses in states from California to Massachusetts and as far south as Georgia are equipped with the radios that receive programming sent to districts by cable and then broadcast locally. Individual programs are tailored for elementary-, middle-and high-school bus routes.

Orange, Volusia and Polk school officials say they were approached but turned down Bus Radio.

“We’re not in the business of telling you which lip gloss to wear and which jeans to wear,” said Fred Murphy, who is in charge of bus operations for Polk schools.

Lake County doesn’t even have regular radios on its buses. Music is distracting for the driver, said Mike Herring, transportation supervisor.

But Seminole says the trip to school can be an opportunity for acting up and that music soothes the soul of rowdy buses.

“It’s generally accepted that music will have a positive influence on students’ behavior on the school bus,” Superintendent Bill Vogel said.

Officials also are intrigued by the prospect of offering quick lessons to help students pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, the high-stakes exam that drives state schools these days. Bus Radio gives districts six minutes of every hour for local announcements, which could include FCAT spots.

Vogel said Monday that he intends to recommend a six-month trial with Bus Radio. The School Board is scheduled to discuss the proposal during a meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the school-district office in Sanford.

Radios on Seminole buses now tune in local stations to keep kids occupied on the ride, but the driver has to be quick on the dial to censor suggestive songs, inappropriate chatter or unwanted advertisements. Bus Radio will be better, officials say.

“It’s much safer than having every bus driver pick whatever channel they want,” School Board member Jeanne Morris said.

Company officials say Bus Radio’s playlist steers clear of explicit and suggestive language, and districts also can ban any song they find objectionable. A running commentary by hosts Mat and Lucia is clean and peppy, too.

But Bus Radio also has advertisements from national sponsors such as Reebok, which raises concerns among critics. A sample program provided for Seminole School Board members pushed sales of certain CDs played on the program.

“Our concern is that children are a captive audience exposed to advertising on the bus,” said Jan Resseger, who heads the education committee for the National Council of Churches.

That group is among dozens of organizations that have joined a nationwide effort by Commercial Alert, a Washington-based advocacy group, to persuade big companies not to sponsor Bus Radio programs. Others range from conservation and consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the conservative pro-family Eagle Forum and the PTA.

Jean Hovey of Winter Springs, vice president of Florida’s PTA, said the organization would stand behind the national group.

“If the national PTA has a position on it, we have a position on it. And we will support that position,” she said.

The school district considers ‘Bus Radio’ for students, but the ads and the idea worry some.

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