Radio Rides Along on the School Bus

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A suburban Boston company called Bus Radio beams music and ads into school buses every day. The idea is to keep kids quiet and make money for the school district. Some decry the effort as crass commercialism.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Our new science series may bring back some school memories for you. Our next story is sure to as well.

Remember the school bus, that unique zone where kids are outside the province of both parents and teachers? The result is often unruly. Some schools have hired bus monitors to try to tame their teens and tweens, but a Massachusetts company has a new idea. They say radio will bring more calm to buses, along with more cash for schools. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, the idea isn't playing so well with some parents.

(Soundbite of children)

TOVIA SMITH: At 2:15, when school lets out, so does all that energy that kids have been sitting on since first period. In Woburn, Massachusetts, as kids climb aboard their yellow school bus, it quickly becomes a free-for-all.

(Soundbite of children)

SMITH: On a good day, the kids are rambunctious - teasing, throwing things, climbing over the seats. On the worst days, bus driver Sue White says she actually has to pull over and go to the back of the bus to break up a fight. But now, before things get too rowdy, Davis tries an early intervention.

Ms. SUE WHITE (School Bus Driver): If I need music, I just - all I need to do is press a button. It'll just boost up the music. Push the blue button, I'm all set.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: A few hits on the volume-up button and a few seconds later, amazingly, the kids actually get quiet. It's as if the music has conquered - as one bus driver puts it - the savage beast. Then, almost on cue, the kids all start singing.

(Soundbite of kids singing)

SMITH: It's still loud, for sure, but kids like seventh grader Marissa Plunkett(ph) say the music has made the bus much less wild than it used to be.

Ms. MARISSA PLUNKETT (Seventh Grader): Before everyone was like loud (unintelligible) get a migraine. And now it makes me want to get up and take the bus.

Unidentified Girl #1: I love that song.

SMITH: But songs are not the only thing playing on Bus Radio.

(Soundbite of radio commercial)

ANNOUNCER: (unintelligible) live premier, Friday, November 3rd, beginning at 7:00, only on Cartoon Network.

SMITH: Bus Radio runs about eight minutes of commercials every hour, and the company has become the latest target of those opposed to advertising in or around schools.

PROTESTERS: Put Bus Radio on the skids. Shouldn't be exploiting kids.

SMITH: A small group of parents demonstrated against Bus Radio in Boston this week. The company pays schools a nominal fee to run its shows, and so far about two dozen districts around the nation have signed up. But critics, like children's singer-songwriter Raffi, who joined the protest, call it unconscionable, the direct advertising at a captive audience of schoolkids.

RAFFI (Singer-Songwriter): It's morally repugnant, because children aren't old enough to appraise the pitch of what they're being sold. It's wrong. How else can I put that? One shouldn't exploit the young and the naïve.

SMITH: Bus Radio officials say they screen their commercials and their music. They've turned down ads for sugary sodas and greasy burgers, just as they've banned about a quarter of the songs on kids' Top 40 list because of inappropriate lyrics. Bus Radio's Lynda Shulman says lots of bus drivers play regular FM radio, and Bus Radio, she says, is much better than that.

Ms. LYNDA SHULMAN (Bus Radio): We're taking the smut and dirt out of the songs that the people are playing on regular radio. We're actually playing clean, fun songs. We're taking out all the R-rated movies, all the beer ads, all the Viagra ads, and we're playing something that's, you know, appropriate.

(Soundbite of children)

SMITH: Back on the bus, Marissa Plunkett and her friends say they're used to seeing commercials all day long, and they don't get what the fuss is all about.

Ms. PLUNKETT: Honestly, like, because you hear them on the TV, and they're just TV commercials on the radio.

SMITH: The bigger issue, as kids see it, is whether Bus Radio gets the music rights, and there's some debate about that.

Ms. PLUNKETT: They play a lot of the same songs.

Unidentified Boy #1: And they play like girl songs like this.

Unidentified Boy #2: There needs to be more rap.

SMITH: These kids may prove just as hard to please as some of their parents. Kids are a captive group, but they can still tune out what they don't want to hear.

Excuse me. Excuse me. Can you hear me with those on?

Mr. ANTHONY BOLANDI(ph) (Fifth Grader): Sort of.

SMITH: All it takes is a pair of headphones hooked up to an iPod.

What are you listening to?

Mr. BOLANDI: Gemini (unintelligible).

SMITH: Regular Radio, FM radio.

Mr. BOLANDI: Yeah.

SMITH: Better than Bus Radio?

Mr. BOLANDI: Sometimes.

SMITH: Fifth grader Anthony Bolandi says he's listening to his MP3 player mostly because it's brand-new. But so is Bus Radio. It's been playing less than a week, and it remains to be seen whether kids will still sit still and want to listen to it a month or two down the road. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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