November 23rd, 2007

Bus Radio opens to kids' mixed reviews

By Dave Weber
Orlando Sun Sentinel

By next month, Seminole parents should be able to check programming online.

The canned program of songs and ads now playing on Seminole County school buses is not music to Cheyenne Everhart’s ears.

Loud music, plugs for records and constant patter from giddy disc jockeys are the new background for her long bus ride from Oviedo to Millennium Middle School in Sanford and back home each day.

“It is quite annoying,” she said. “If you want to talk to your friends or study on the bus, the music is distracting.”

Since Bus Radio debuted on 53 county school buses earlier this month, it has received mixed reviews.

Some kids like it. Others don’t.

Some parents see it as harmless ear candy to pacify their children. Others question what songs and ads their kids will hear.

Last week, the School Board raised concerns about students e-mailing their names and addresses as entries to a Bus Radio sponsor’s contest. The board had promised parents no personal information would be collected, and school-district officials are investigating.

Less than a month into the venture, concerns are mounting, and a committee appointed by the School Board is supposed to sort them all out. The group of parents, teachers, bus drivers and school-district officials will meet monthly to review what’s playing on the buses, hear complaints and consider changes.

Parents and even School Board members have not yet been able to listen in on the programming. But by next month, officials expect daily programming to be available online for the public to check.

Looking for results

If Bus Radio is judged a success when the school year ends in June, it may go into all 400 county school buses next fall.

Seminole’s mostly 60-something School Board members are the first to concede they are out of touch on teen and pre-teen music matters.

But a free-music program tailored to Seminole students seemed like a good idea to help maintain discipline on sometimes-unruly buses. Many buses have had standard radios for years, but drivers complain they can’t find a suitable radio station for kids among the shock jocks.

When Seminole school officials were approached by Massachusetts-based Bus Radio Inc. last month, they quickly bought in.

What they discovered, however, was that they also were stepping into a growing national debate about Bus Radio and its mix of music and ads. Critics range from the national PTA to the pro-family Eagle Forum and the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Nationwide movement

The start-up firm hopes this school year to have its radios in 10,000 buses used by 1 million students from Florida to Boston to California. In Florida, schools in Palm Beach County and in Nassau County north of Jacksonville also have signed on.

Bus Radio pledges that its music is “age appropriate.” It produces separate programs for elementary-, middle- and high-school bus riders, with the driver making the choice at the touch of a button.

The programming is prerecorded in Massachusetts studios the day before, with producers promising to edit it to the tastes and demands of each school district. For Seminole, Bus Radio officials said they even could add FCAT exam tips or drills, if the school system wanted them.

The programs are sent overnight via Wi-Fi connection to a server at the Seminole school-bus compound in Winter Springs, then loaded onto bus radios installed by the company. The programs are ready to go when drivers arrive in the morning.

While Bus Radio says the Top 40 songs it plays are screened and G-rated, critics say that is open to debate. Some featured artists whose “clean” songs play on Bus Radio have raunchier stuff on their albums, which kids might buy if they like the songs they hear on the bus.

“If we can’t agree on what is appropriate music, I’ll have to make the decision whether to pull my students off the bus and drive them to school,” said Amy Lockhart, a parent serving on the School Board’s committee.

Ads to expand

There also is concern about the nature of advertising piped into the heads of kids, who are a captive audience on the bus.

“I would like to hear what the ads are,” said Joel Everhart, Cheyenne’s father.

So far, there are not many. Bus Radio officials say they have been concentrating on building an audience before pushing ad sales, but expect a bonanza.

“It is a niche audience. It is like the Super Bowl,” David Briere, a Bus Radio representative, told School Board committee members earlier this month. “We are going to have people beating down our doors.”

Having radio advertisements on the buses might violate School Board policy, which bans ads. School Board Chairman Barry Gainer said the policy did not foresee radio ads, and he has recommended that the School Board alter the policy to allow them.

But whether Bus Radio is a success may come down to whether it suits the musical tastes of kids.

“It’s mostly R&B-type music and not enough variety,” is Cheyenne Everhart’s opinion. “I would like more rock ‘n’ roll. And I prefer no music at all.”

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