Board tunes in to Bus Radio

By Michael Brindley
Nashua Telegraph

April 19, 2007

NASHUA – After hearing complaints from parents about inappropriate content, school district officials are looking for more control over what students hear on school buses.

Administrators are considering becoming the first New Hampshire school district to contract with Bus Radio, a Massachusetts-based company that plays age-specific radio programming on buses, including commercials.

At Monday night’s school board meeting, Stephen Connolly, director of national sales for Bus Radio, gave a presentation about what his company would offer, and what the changes for students would be.

Like satellite radio, a wireless transmission would be sent to buses, playing age-focused content. Younger students would hear commercials and music focused toward their age group, and the same would go for middle- and high-school students.

In addition to music, Connolly said there would be eight minutes of commercials per hour, as well public service announcements, trivia and contests.

All of the material is approved by Bus Radio’s content review board, and songs that require any kind of censoring for profanity don’t make the cut, said Connolly. The district also has control over what types of advertisements are heard, he said.

“If a sponsor goes against the district’s policies, we won’t play that,” he said.

Installation of the system wouldn’t cost anything, and the district would get back 5 percent of the revenue from the advertisements, said Connolly.

David Rauseo, director of transportation, estimated that the district would get back no more than $10,000 a year from the advertisements, which could be used to offset other costs.

Rauseo said that in response to parent complaints, the district has already banned two stations from being played on school buses: KISS 108, a mainly top 40 station, and 94.5, which focuses on hip-hop and rap.

Rauseo said the morning shows on those stations have been problematic.

Other than the banned station, bus drivers have discretion as to what is played over the radio. Rauseo said the new system could help create calmer atmospheres on the buses.

“Hopefully to quiet down the buses,” he said, when asked why he was recommending the system. “Give the students something to be engaged with.”

The district has also begun installing video cameras on school buses in an attempt to reduce the number of student incidents.

There are no districts using Bus Radio in New Hampshire, but they do serve the Woburn, Mass., district, as well as the Triton Regional School District in Byfield, Mass., said Connolly.

Rauseo said what appealed to him was that the material goes through a content review board, so there is little chance derogatory material would make it through.

“This way, I know it’s all been removed,” he said.

Rauseo said First Student, which the district contracts with for transportation, has already signed off on it. New hardware would have to be installed on all of the district’s buses.

Bus Radio is currently being heard on 800 buses in 17 districts, in nine different states. The company started up about a year ago, said Connolly.

School board members had some general questions about how the system works, but didn’t give an indication about whether they were in favor of it.

Connolly played short clips of the audio for the board.

Administrators said they would continue studying it, and then come back with a recommendation.

Board member Sandra Ziehm said she thought the system looked good, especially because the content is age appropriate.

Board member Tom Vaughan said one of the things the board will have to consider is the advertising content. He sees a difference between the commercials heard on regular radio and those on Bus Radio, because they are focused and targeted toward children.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not in favor of it,” he said. “It’s just something we’ll have to consider.”

Bus Radio has also faced its share of opposition. The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, based in Boston, has organized a campaign against Bus Radio, arguing that it “substitutes one problem for another by replacing inappropriate content with advertising targeted directly to children,” according to its Web site.

The organization advises that it’s better just to turn off the radio. Rauseo said that while there are some districts with “no radio” policies on school buses, he doesn’t recommend that for Nashua.

Rauseo said bus drivers are able to use the radio as an effective tool for discipline; if students on a bus misbehave, students on that bus lose their radio privileges.
Connolly added there is a safety feature installed, as well.

All of the buses would be equipped with a “panic button” that drivers could push in
the case of a hijacking, and the bus could be tracked using global positioning system software.

Rauseo said he would like to see the system implemented by the beginning of next year, if administrators choose to recommend it.