A Few Articles

June 21, 2006

Targeting Kids – BusRadio aims to bring commercials to Massachusetts school buses.

by Maureen Turner – June 15, 2006 Valley Advocate

The average American child sees 40,000 television commercials a year, psychologist Susan Linn reports in her 2004 book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. That’s not including the countless other ads that have become an unavoidable part of our culture. "Today’s children are assaulted by advertising everywhere–at home, in school, on sports fields, in playgrounds, on the street," writes Linn, a co-founder of the Harvard University-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, or CCFC. Add to that list the school bus.

This fall, a Needham-based company called BusRadio plans to broadcast a private radio network, available only on school buses, to 100,000 students in Massachusetts; by 2007, it hopes to reach one million kids nationally. The programming, according to BusRadio’s Web site (www.busradio.com), includes a mix of kid-appropriate pop music and public-service spots, plus 10 minutes of ads and promotions per hour.

Josh Golin, program manager at CCFC, ticks off multiple reasons BusRadio is a bad idea. "Start with the fact that kids are already bombarded with marketing in all aspects of their lives," says Golin, who points to research that links heavy marketing to kids with problems including sexual precocity, obesity and violence. "Then add the fact that the student is a captive audience; they have no choice in this. They are forced to listen to what BusRadio wants them to hear."

There’s nothing new about marketers elbowing their way into schools. Principals sign "pouring contracts" with soda companies that require heavy in-school marketing; Channel One broadcasts a kid-focused newscast, complete with commercials, into the classrooms of 7 million kids. BusRadio’s founders, Michael Yanoff and Steven Shulman, also created Cover Concepts, which distributes free ad-covered book covers in 43,000 schools.

Yanoff and Shulman are tight-lipped about their plans for BusRadio. Neither responded to an interview request from the Advocate . After a June 4 Washington Post article broke news of the company’s plans, large portions of its Web site were not functioning.

But the Advocate was able to access some BusRadio marketing material. "BusRadio will take targeted student marketing to the next level," it informed would-be advertisers. "Every morning and every afternoon on their way to and from school, kids across the country will be listening to the dynamic programming of BusRadio providing advertiser’s [sic] with a unique and effective way to reach the highly sought after teen and tween market. [Thousands of school buses across the country will receive a customized BusRadio show specifically targeting their geographic location, age level and ethnicity."

On the portion of its Web site aimed at school districts, the company pitches BusRadio as a discipline tool: bus drivers, it notes, could threaten to turn off the radio if kids misbehave. ("The whole idea of "Let’s keep kids under control by force-feeding them consumer culture so they don’t misbehave’–there’s something disturbing about that," Golin says.) The site includes testimonials from school officials and bus drivers in districts where BusRadio has been test-marketed. An audio sample on the site features artists like Green Day and Beyonce, as well as a dubious public-safety message ("Never run after the bus if you miss it. Go home and find a safe adult to help you get to school"). A sample school-district agreement refers to schools getting an unspecified cut of BusRadio revenues; participating schools also get necessary radio equipment for free.

"Unfortunately, schools are really feeling the pinch and they’re looking for any way they can raise revenues," Golin says. "So many of them are so financially strapped that anytime they hear "free equipment,’ it’s appealing to them."

BusRadio has declined to say which school districts have signed contracts with the company; Golin says a BusRadio employee told him 20 Massachusetts systems have signed up. CCFC is now contacting Massachusetts school superintendents and school committee members to urge them not to sign on with BusRadio.


Here’s hoping BusRadio drives off a cliff

By Paul McNamara on Thu, 06/08/2006 NetworkWorld

Rarely does a business story elicit from me the type of visceral anger that followed my reading about a start-up called BusRadio.

From the Boston Globe story this week: "A Massachusetts company wants to beam commercial radio broadcasts into school buses … the latest mingling of education and commerce to spark outcry as the firm lobbies school districts across the state to sign contracts for the fall."

The company claims to already have deals in place with school systems serving 100,000 youngsters in a handful of states. (I called my town’s school system and thankfully my kids won’t be among them.)

What specifically does BusRadio have in mind for your children as they sit captive in those rolling yellow cans? Here’s a description from the company’s Web site:

"Developed by the founders of Cover Concepts, one of the nation’s largest in-school marketing programs, BusRadio will take targeted student marketing to the next level. Every morning and every afternoon on their way to and from school, kids across the country will be listening to the dynamic programming of BusRadio providing advertisers with a unique and effective way to reach the highly sought after teen and tween market. Utilizing cutting edge technology, BusRadio has developed a proprietary closed network of school buses that receive age-appropriate programming each day as students travel to and from school."

That’s the pitch to potential advertisers. You need to dig a bit into the BusRadio Web site to learn there will be eight minutes of commercials per hour, which in one passage written for the consumption of school officials is sanitized as "corporate sponsorships." The company even has the gall to suggest that its service will make school-bus transportation safer in that it offers a palliative effect on otherwise rambunctious passengers; you know, music sooths the savage child and all.

And it doesn’t take much imagination to envision where the next "next level" might lead. Think what a little GPS could do for such a marketing opportunity. We could have the radio commercials linked to physical points of interest along bus routes. Pass Circuit City and an iPod ad airs; roll by the Golden Arches and hear a come-on from Ronald McDonald; see that Chuck E Cheese … listen up kiddies (you really think they’ll stop at tweens?).

While I can sympathize with school officials and their budget woes, there comes a time when parents and taxpayers need to draw a line in sand about this stuff. … Now’s the right time.


Firm seeks to beam ads and music to school buses

By Raja Mishra, Boston Globe Staff | June 6, 2006

A Massachusetts company wants to beam commercial radio broadcasts into school buses every morning and afternoon, the latest mingling of education and commerce to spark outcry as the firm lobbies school districts across the state to sign contracts for the fall.

Needham-based Bus Radio said yesterday that it has signed up school systems with nearly 100,000 school children in Massachusetts and other states for the service next school year. The company says it is offering a cutting-edge service in which children select music online for their district’s buses, drivers can finish their routes with their passengers quiet, and school districts get cash from the company. Bus Radio can sell advertising time to businesses trying to reach young consumers.

But critics say such arrangements exploit captive young ears already inundated by advertising pitches morning to night. Yesterday, one consumer group sent Governor Mitt Romney a letter urging him to prevent the company from working with Bay State districts, while activists flooded the state Education Department with protest e-mails.

“What these corporations want to do is be in children’s faces 24 hours a day, and they’re getting close to that," said Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston.

Bus Radio would not disclose which school districts in Massachusetts or other states have signed up. Woburn school officials confirmed that they tried out the system last year and are considering allowing it in all buses next school year.

But Mansfield rejected the firm’s $10,000 offer, after outraged parents sent e-mails and letters. “It caused us to reexamine our engagement with Bus Radio," said Mansfield School Superintendent John A. Moretti. “We decided it was just not worth it."

Bus Radio has also courted Boston schools, the largest district in the state, with more than 60,000 students. But a spokesman said school officials refuse on principle to allow advertising inside school buses.

The Bus Radio system would function somewhat like satellite radio, the firm’s president, Steven Shulman, said yesterday. Free receivers installed on the buses would get daily feeds of pop music-oriented programming. Each hour would include 44 minutes of songs and disc-jockey banter, six minutes of safety announcements, eight minutes of advertising, plus two minutes of corporate-sponsored contests. How many ads a student hears would depend on the length of the bus ride.

A demonstration broadcast had an enthusiastic DJ soliciting requests by proclaiming, “It’s going to be your radio show!" Pop stars Pink and Beyoncé were featured, as was a $200 cash giveaway contest linked to the movie “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."

Shulman said content would be limited to age-appropriate songs and advertisements that students and school administrators could control and can be modified for buses serving elementary, middle, and high school students. He said that pilot tests of the system indicated that students were quieter on the bus as they listened, resulting in safer drives. The Bus Radio programming often replaced the shows played on FM radios used by bus drivers, Shulman said.`There’s no reason for a 12-year-old kid to be listening to Bacardi rum or Budweiser or Viagra commercials, but that’s what’s on the radio today," he said.

In exchange for contracting with Bus Radio, school districts get all the equipment, plus cash payments based on the size of the district and number of buses.

A letter from Woburn school officials praising the Bus Radio system is posted on the company’s website.
“The bus drivers loved it, the ability to keep the kids quiet and in their seats," said Joseph Elia, director of finance for Woburn schools. He said administrators were untroubled by the ads or the music.
“We don’t think its a major issues from the standpoint of content," he said.

But Commercial Alert, a consumer group based in Oregon that seeks to reduce advertising in the public sphere, said such an agreement would be disruptive and unfair for students.

“They would have no choice, and neither would their parents," said the group’s letter to Romney yesterday. “You would be intentionally interfering with the ability of students to read, pray, or do homework on the school bus."

State Education Department spokeswoman Heidi Perlman said the decision to contract with Bus Radio was up to individual school districts. She also reported that Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll yesterday had received hundreds of similarly worded e-mails rom around the country opposing Bus Radio.

Wakefield is another district that walked away from Bus Radio. Peter DeRoeve, assistant superintendent for personnel and finance, said signing with Bus Radio did not make financial sense.

“We only have five buses and about 500 to 600 bused students," he said. “The answer we got [from Bus Radio] is that it didn’t look like Wakefield could generate enough revenue to make it worthwhile for either of us."

Bus Radio has some experience marketing during school hours. In a previous venture, Shulman and a partner distributed millions of school book covers featuring ads from McDonald’s, Nike, and other companies. Bus Radio also has similarities to Channel One, a for-profit television network with commercials that airs in thousands of US schools and has also drawn controversy.

Linn, author of the 2004 book “Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood," said radio ads in buses cross the line. “There needs to be commercial-free time in children’s lives," she said. “And the school bus ride is one of them."