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School BusRadio Gets Mixed Signals

Carlos Illescas
The Denver Post
March 5, 2009

Several school districts in Colorado are now receiving controversial school bus radio entertainment designed to calm the kids — but it has some parents annoyed over the musical and advertising content.

Douglas County, Denver and Aurora school districts are three of the seven in the state that offer BusRadio. Denver is in its second year of providing BusRadio, and while Littleton Public Schools jettisoned the system after a complaint, Denver hasn't had any problems, officials said.

"For us, it's all about bus safety," said Denver Public Schools spokesman Alex Sanchez. "We want to make sure that the kids can be in their seats listening to age-appropriate music that keeps them in their seats."

Others say BusRadio has nothing to do with safety. It's all about target marketing to children, a captive audience forced to listen to whatever pitch is being made without parents around to change the station.

"No school district should be making student-targeted advertising a compulsory part of the school day," said Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood in Massachusetts.

"If you're a parent and don't want your child to see cereal commercials on Saturday mornings, you can control that," Golin said. "Here, you are talking about something that parents don't have the ability to monitor content or advertising."

BusRadio, which is free to school districts and can generate a small amount of revenue for them, is produced at studios outside of Boston and reaches about 1 million listeners daily on more than 9,000 school buses in 24 states. It provides eight hours of programming a day — different shows and music for elementary, middle and high school students.

The shows are sent over the Internet to servers at the bus depots. Wireless connectivity sends the instructions on what to play to the individual buses.

Grade level plays into music

Students can call a 1-800 number or go to the BusRadio website to select music they'd like to hear the next day.

Elementary-age students get Disney-type music, such as Miley Cyrus, or the Jonas Brothers. Middle and high schools get music they like, too, like Rihanna and Beyonce. Inappropriate lyrics are "sanitized" by using a radio-edited version of the song.

There are about four minutes of commercials an hour, which is less than regular radio. BusRadio declines to disclose its advertisers, but the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood says Bratz toys, the WB network and Cingular wireless have been among them. Programming also features public-service announcements, such as messages about staying in school, reading and exercising.

All the districts share 5 percent of revenues generated by the ads, but the amount can be small. During a brief trial, Littleton could have collected just $200 but gave the money back. DPS did not respond to questions on how much the district has earned from BusRadio.

Steve Shulman, president of BusRadio, said the service is a better alternative than regular AM or FM stations, which sometimes feature wacky deejays who can be inappropriate.

"It should be Dannon yogurt instead of Budweiser," Shulman said of the ads. "We won't accept anything that is age inappropriate. No alcohol or cigarettes or anything like that. We don't even have sugary snacks or drinks."

Even so, some parents don't want to see advertisers targeting their children in a school setting.

"I'm 100 percent opposed to marketing having more access to my children than they already do," said Rainey Wikstrom, mother of two DPS children who ride the bus. "I monitor television, movies, video games and who my children are exposed to. But there's no way to monitor what's playing on the bus."

DPS parent Chris Shelton said the district did a poor job of informing parents about BusRadio. He stumbled onto it by accident, when he was searching the DPS website about a late bus and found information about BusRadio.

"I'm not surprised that mainstream media found another way to get commercials in through pop culture to kids," said Shelton, whose daughter goes to Ebert Elementary.

"It's my music; I like it"

One concern by Obligation Inc., a child advocacy organization in Alabama, is that BusRadio plays "clean songs" but by performers who sing about sex, drugs and violence. A child who hears a song on a bus may go out and buy that CD.

"They play songs that they call age appropriate but by artists known for explicit lyrics," said Jim Metrock, president of Obligation Inc.

Students seem to enjoy the music — even if several were listening to their own MP3 players rather than BusRadio during an after-school ride Tuesday. Still, after a long day of Colorado Student Assessment Program testing, some Hamilton Middle School students in Denver wound down on by listening to BusRadio.

"It's my music; I like it," said Hamilton sixth-grader Yesenia Arreola, who was singing along to a Rihanna song. "It relaxes me."

 

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