November 1st, 2007

Schools tune into bus radio network

By Anne Dudley Ellis
Fresno Bee

Valley districts are using firm's preprogrammed music to calm riders.

The clamor to turn on the school bus AM/FM radio—or change the station—often starts as soon as students climb on board.

Many bus drivers are happy to comply. It seems to calm students, and drivers can use the radio to bargain with them: If they stay in their seats and are quiet, the radio stays on.

“We find that the kids are better behaved if we can play the radio,” said Central Unified transportation director Diane Komoto.

A Massachusetts company is cashing in on rambunctious bus riders with Bus Radio, which provides free music and public-service announcements for school districts to use in their buses. And, yes, commercials—but the company promises students will hear fewer than on regular radio and that none are inappropriate for young people.

Bus Radio recently began pursuing customers in the central San Joaquin Valley, landing contracts with the Visalia Unified School District and Kings Canyon Unified School District in Reedley.

The Central Unified School District expects to consider the service later this month or in December. The Clovis Unified School District also is contemplating a contract, although some board members there have concerns.

The Fresno Unified School District is not interested, preferring that its buses be tuned to local stations in case there are emergency alert broadcasts, said district spokeswoman Susan Bedi.

Indeed, while many transportation directors and bus drivers are high on the Bus Radio concept, others are critical.

“My major concern is we are being asked to provide a captive audience to a group of advertisers,” said Ginny Hovsepian, a member of the Clovis Unified school board. “By doing that, we would be putting our seal of approval on music and advertising.”

Growing concern over ads

Bus Radio’s push into the Valley comes at a time of increasing concern nationwide that young people are harmed by constant bombardment from advertisers.

Its practice of selling kids-only audiences to advertisers is “nothing that school boards should be enabling or collaborating with,” said Robert Weissman, a spokesman for Commercial Alert, a consumer-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The Mansfield School District board in Massachusetts in June 2006 rescinded a vote to contract with Bus Radio after parents complained about the advertising.

A similar outcry was raised by some when Channel One was launched in 1990. The satellite television network, which is broadcast to teenagers in classrooms, features educational programming—and commercials.

Bus Radio co-founder Steven Shulman said the program’s features and age-appropriate programming are far better for students than regular radio.

“They won’t hear Budweiser commercials or Viagra commercials,” Shulman said.

The company limits advertising to eight minutes per hour, which supporters say is far less than regular radio stations. Bus Radio programs also feature announcements about bus safety, underage drinking, bullying and obesity.

Since launching the company in 2005, Shulman said, 10,000 buses across the country have been outfitted with Bus Radio equipment, reaching 1 million listeners. The number of buses with Bus Radio has increased tenfold since 2006, he said.

Programming is delivered to districts via the Internet, with 10 hours of new programming downloaded every night in separate tracks for elementary, middle and high school students. Bus depots are installed with a WiFi network and microserver, while special radio units are installed in buses. 

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