Opposition Greets BusRadio in Rhode Island

August 24, 2006

East Bay, RI

East Bay Newspapers

Wednesday, August 21, 2006

Swansea School Committee tunes into Bus Radio Monday

SWANSEA – The prospect of Swansea and other towns allowing broadcasts by the Bus Radio company on their school buses has sparked controversy in Massachusetts. The Bus Radio company has proposed to install and maintain radios in school buses and run programming and advertisements they claim are suitable for children. The service is free to the district, but a specific contract has yet to be discussed.

Bus Radio’s opponents say the merit of such a service is questionable, especially considering the bombardment of advertising children already face in America. The Swansea School Committee is expected to hold a discussion and possibly a vote on the matter Monday. Superintendent of Schools Stephan Flanagan said last week that he was not certain how the school committee would act on the matter, and that messages received from various sources were mixed.

"It’s a tough read," Mr. Flanagan said.

"I’ve gotten some pros and cons from them. I don’t know which way (the school committee) are leaning, to be honest with you."

Mixed signals

Mr. Flanagan said he had heard rumblings of protest while researching the matter online and elsewhere. He said some of the groups opposed to the proposal appeared to be right-wing political organizations, though an online search by the Swansea News on opponents of Bus Radio also turned up a link to the left-wing publication "The Progressive," as well as Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org), an advocacy group co-founded by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

One of the groups opposing Bus Radio is the Massachusetts-based Campaign For a Commercial Free Childhood (www.commercialfreechildhood.org), or CCFC. CCFC Program Manager Josh Golin said his organization is concerned by the $15 billion that he claimed is spent on marketing to children each year. The group’s mission, he said, is to stop advertising and consumerism from infiltrating every facet of a child’s upbringing. He said that the group was particularly concerned about marketing campaigns in schools.

"They are raised with the idea that what happens in school is good for them," Mr. Golin said.

"Anything advertised (on school property) comes with the school’s implicit endorsement, and that makes it more powerful."

In their defense

Bus Radio President Steve Shulman, however, argued that his company’s interests are actually quite similar to those of the program’s opponents – to make sure kids are not exposed to material that may negatively influence them on the bus.

"It’s funny, because our goals are aligned with theirs," Mr. Shulman said of groups like CCFC.

"They want to look out for what’s best for the children, and that’s what (our programming) provides."

Kate Mun, a mother of three girls from Monson, Massachusetts, however, is not convinced that the company’s motives are pure. Having campaigned against a contract between Bus Radio and her town’s school department, she said she found that what advertisers were told about Bus Radio on the company’s corporate Web site (www.busradio.net) was different from what parents and school committee members were told. Specifically, she argues that the company’s real intent was to get children to enter their personal information on the company’s main site (www.busradio.org) in order to enter contests to win cash and other prizes, which she said was evidenced by the company’s refusal to remove references to their Web site from their programming.

"The whole point is to get kids onto the Web site," Ms. Mun said.

"These things are really going to tempt children."

Bus Radio’s president said that’s simply not true.

"We don’t get information from the students at all," Mr. Shulman said of the contests.

Questionable tests

Some opponents of Bus Radio have suggested the possibility of impropriety in "tests" of the product in Woburn, Wakefield, and Arlington. A letter to Bus Radio (posted on the company’s site) from Woburn Superintendent of Schools Carl Batchelder indicated that the Woburn school district was put in contact with Bus Radio "through Steve Connolly of Atlantic Express," the bus company serving all three districts.

Bus Radio opponents claim that Mr. Connolly has since left Atlantic Express to work for Bus Radio.

"That is totally irrelevant," said Bus Radio President Steve Shulman.

"He was told by his superiors to (initiate) the study. We thought that he was a (good) candidate. Every once in awhile there are some people who are going to say some false things."

In defense of his service, Mr. Shulman said Bus Radio equipment also offers standard AM/FM radio tuning and an "amber alert" feature that can be used by drivers to notify authorities of the bus’ location in case of an emergency. He maintained that Bus Radio would be responsive to any concerns about inappropriate content or advertising in its programming.

"They will have all the choices that they had before, plus a better one," Mr. Shulman said.

What: School committee meeting

When: Monday, August 21, 7 p.m.

Where: School Administration Building, 1 Gardners Neck Road