Soon, schoolchildren may be singing new lyrics to the classic "Wheels on the Bus."
"The ads on the bus go on and on, on and on . . ."
BusRadio, a start-up company in Massachusetts, wants to pipe into school buses around the country a private radio network that plays music, public-service announcements, contests and, of course, ads, aimed at kids as they travel to and from school.
As BusRadio's Web site ( http://www.busradio.net/ ) explains: "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."
BusRadio, the Web site adds, "will take targeted student marketing to the next level." Marketers can advertise and sponsor contests or provide a celebrity deejay (perhaps to promote that next CD or movie). They can also use BusRadio's Web site to conduct surveys and test songs, CD covers, packaging and ads.
According to its Web site, BusRadio plans to operate in Massachusetts this fall, broadcasting to more than 102,000 students. By September 2007 it plans to take its programs national, reaching a million students. On the Web site, BusRadio listed Hagerstown, Md., as one of the areas it plans to serve. However, Chris Carter, director of public school transportation for Washington County (which includes Hagerstown), said he had never heard of BusRadio.
The company is the brainchild of Michael Yanoff and Steven Shulman, the same two executives who created Cover Concepts, a company that has provided schools with millions of free book covers -- full of bold, colorful ads for Kellogg's, McDonald's, Calvin Klein, Nike and other major national advertisers. Now owned by comic-book king Marvel Enterprises, Cover Concepts says it reaches 30 million school-age children in 43,000 U.S. public schools, which receive no funding for distributing the products.
Shulman declined to discuss BusRadio's plans, saying in an e-mail that it is "a relatively new company in a start-up mode." He said the "planned launch is in September, and until that time we have [a] policy in place not to comment on our business plan."
According to the company's Web site, school buses will be equipped -- free -- with custom-designed equipment that will carry the company's proprietary programs. It is unclear whether the school systems will also be paid for broadcasting BusRadio. In an hour's broadcast, 44 minutes will be devoted to music and news, six minutes to public-safety announcements, two to contests and eight to advertising. On most commercial radio stations, there is usually 10 to 12 minutes, sometimes more, of advertising.
BusRadio says pilot tests have shown that students behave better when its programs are on. Noise is reduced, and students are more likely to remain in their seats and more willing to follow school rules, according to the Web site. "Drivers used BusRadio as a behavioral tool. . . . If kids misbehaved, they lost the privilege of listening to the show," the Web site said.
BusRadio said that in test runs, its commercials were effective in attracting kids' attention. The WB network, for example, wanted to promote its television shows to kids. Print ads could reach the right audience but perhaps not on the day that the shows were to be broadcast. Commercial radio could do that, but it was considered inefficient for the youngest of viewers because kids "tend to turn the station when the ads begin."
WB tried BusRadio, running the promotions on the days the shows were scheduled to air and broadcasting more ads during the students' ride home "so they could reinforce the message to watch that night."
"It's a pretty clever concept," particularly because the company is using the issue of child safety to promote the concept, said Paul Kurnit, head of KidShop, a New York marketing firm that advises food companies on promoting products to children.
Kurnit, who learned of BusRadio just last week, said, "They are using traditional media to reach kids in an environment that up to now has been pretty noncommercial." And that, Kurnit said, could make the concept controversial, especially at a time when a growing number of health professionals and government officials are calling for restrictions on marketing products -- particularly junk food -- to children.
Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission called on the food industry to voluntarily set minimum nutrition standards for foods that can be marketed to children. Last year, the prestigious Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, said Congress should mandate changes if food and beverage manufacturers fail to promote healthful products in the next two years. In 2004, in another report, the Institute of Medicine said schools should strive to be "as advertising-free as possible."
That could be challenging for many schools, which increasingly have relied on corporate sponsorships and free products -- usually branded -- to ease tight budgets. At the same time, marketers have been courting schools, eager to distinguish their products among the hundreds of others promoted to kids every week on TV, radio, the Internet and anywhere they congregate. Some school districts have accepted ads on the outside of school buses, but up to now, the inside has been sacrosanct.
That's why critics are lining up even before BusRadio is officially launched. "It's using the compulsory education law to compel kids to listen to ads," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of the public advocacy group Commercial Alert. "Its justification is it makes kids quiet. So what? They'd be quiet if we gave them cigarettes, but that doesn't mean we should."
Ruskin said he is also concerned about personal data the company will collect, particularly as kids go online to respond to contests and promotions. "Who gets the children's personal information?" he asked.
Daniel Broughton, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic, said he was concerned that advertising "in this situation takes on the air of being official." That was one of the concerns many parents and advertising critics had when schools accepted free television and satellite dishes in exchange for free programming, including ads, from Channel One.
There are some differences from Channel One, Broughton noted, because BusRadio isn't aired during school, when it would divert teacher time or conflict with in-class programming.
BusRadio says on its Web site that its service is an improvement over what students hear if a bus driver listens to AM or FM radio. "It is virtually impossible to listen to commercial radio for 30 minutes without being offended by a song's lyrics or DJ's talk. . . . BusRadio entertains the students while virtually eliminating the concerns of inappropriate music, DJ talk and commercials."
Linda Farbry, director of transportation for Fairfax County public schools, said its buses are equipped with AM/FM radios precisely for students. "If they listen to music, they are controlled and quiet. . . . Some of these trips are long, and we want kids to do something other than pick on other kids."
The county has 22 stations it considers acceptable for student ears, such as soft rock WASH (97.1 FM) and country WMZQ (98.7 FM). Would Farbry consider BusRadio for her buses, which transport 110,000 students a day? "It depends on the cost," she said.
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