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FCC Gives BusRadio a Paddling Over Ads

Supports parents' concerns over kid's exposure

Toni Fitzgerald
Media Life
September 7, 2009

It’s an issue that has been dogging the country since the first cartoon hit the airwaves, if not before: Is advertising to kids appropriate?

Many people say no, and they get particularly cranked up when the subject is advertising in schools, especially in school buses, where the messages are virtually inescapable.

Now the issue of kids’ advertising is due to pop up in Congress again, following a report by the Federal Communications Commission, issued Tuesday, about commercial radio broadcasts on school buses.

There’s currently only one national bus radio service, BusRadio, which the FCC examined.

The FCC report does not go nearly so far as to recommend banning BusRadio, noting that it has no direct authority over the broadcaster. The report essentially punts the issue back to local governments, saying they're better equipped to deal with the issue, since each school district has its own special concerns.

But the report does raise questions about how much commercial content kids are being exposed to and whether on-air promotions are being disguised as non-commercial content.

The FCC findings are being hailed as a minor victory by kids’ advertising opponents, and they are urging parents to present the report to their local school boards as evidence of what they perceive as BusRadio's duplicity.

“We are pleased that the FCC shares many of our core concerns,” says a statement released by the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

But many school districts don't agree. Some 160 have signed up for the service, and BusRadio claims 1 million listeners.

BusRadio works like this: A system is installed on the school bus that streams one of three different shows, depending on the kids’ age level, containing music, news, public service announcements and, the company claims, four minutes of commercials per hour.

Schools receive a small percentage of the ad revenue, and the system comes with a GPS device for the bus driver as well as a panic button connected to emergency services in the event the bus is involved in an accident.

BusRadio claims that its services help keep kids in their seats and thus increase safety levels. But parents have objected to many aspects of the program, including an inability to monitor the content, the playing of songs or artists with objectionable content, and DJs making product pitches.

The FCC notes that the vast majority of the comments it received on the matter were anti-BusRadio. It calls for BusRadio to be more forthcoming in its policies regarding objectionable material and to make better distinctions between commercial and non-commercial content.

But in the end it declares school bus advertising a local issue.

“Because the needs and concerns of individual school districts and parents vary greatly by geographic location and community, we conclude that the issue of whether BusRadio, in general, serves the public interest is one most appropriately decided by these and other stakeholders at the local level,” the report concludes.

The findings were immediately shipped off to Congress, which ordered the report as part of the appropriations bill earlier this year. It seems doubtful, based on the interesting but hardly scathing report, that Congress will issue any bans, but some state-level legislatures have already acted.

South Carolina and New York have both banned advertising on school buses.  

 

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