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Targeting kids on BusRadio

Marketplace Staff Aug 31, 2006

SCOTT JAGOW: Three years ago, beer and liquor companies promised to stop running radio ads during programs that a lot of young people listen to. But today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came out with a study about this. And they found that half the alcohol advertising is still airing during programs that kids listen to. The industry says the research is misleading because it was done shortly after companies agreed to the ban.

Advertising to kids is a sensitive issue. That’s why one company in Massachusetts believes radio ads just for kids might be a winning business idea. Ian Gray has our story.

IAN GRAY: It’s the last day of classes at Quashnet Middle School and students are waiting to take their buses home for the summer. Most of the kids here spend at least an hour a day on the bus.

GRAY: What do you guys look forward to when you go to school on the bus?

KIDS: Nothing really.

GRAY: What do you do on the bus?

KIDS: I talk.

GRAY: Does anybody listen to radio?

KIDS: Yeah, yeah. 96.3 or 94.5. . . . Nothing. Our bus driver doesn’t let us listen to anything.

There’s no set policy for bus drivers to follow. Some play music because they think the kids enjoy it. Others don’t have the option because their buses don’t have radios. But, in a few months, all the buses in Quashnet’s school district will be equipped, free of charge, with a special box and speakers that will receive music, public service announcements and ads courtesy of BusRadio, a commercial radio company that transmits via cellphone frequencies.

MICHAEL YANOFF: The problem is that the students are listening to FM radio which was designed for a demographic of adults from 18 to 34. It has inappropriate songs on it. It has inappropriate commercials.

Michael Yanoff is the founder and CEO of BusRadio. He says the company will work with school boards to regulate the types of music and ads students hear.

YANOFF: All the companies that we approach as sponsors are far better alternatives to listening to a Barcardi Rum ad, or to a beer ad, or to an ad for Viagra. You know, this is what the kids are exposed to right now.

Jeffery Dees is the principal of Quashnet. He’s in favor of the school district’s decision to sign with BusRadio, even though it will expose children to targeted advertising.

JEFFREY DEES: Mostly 90% of the problem on the bus is the kids are up and they’re moving as the bus is moving. While the bus driver’s driving it takes their attention from the task of driving. So maybe this will give them something while they’re listening to it. If the music’s good enough, they’ll be involved in it, and it’ll cut down on some of those discipline things.

Using BusRadio to help pacify students may be one of the reasons that school boards are interested in the company. But Paul Peterson, editor-in-chief of the influential journal on school reform, Education Next, says there’s a more tangible benefit.

PAUL PETERSON: It’s a money-making scheme by two groups. One, the company; and the other one is the school districts who buy into it because they’re going to get a percentage of the revenue.

BusRadio is offering to share 5 percent of its gross revenue with school districts. That could translate into an extra few thousand dollars per district. Maybe enough to eliminate fees for parents of students who ride the bus.

PETERSON: There’s nothing wrong with school districts generating revenue. So, on the margins, why not get a little extra money from this source.

Why not? Susan Linn can answer that. She’s a child psychologist at the Judge Baker Children’s Hospital in Boston and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

SUSAN LINN: Kids shouldn’t be listening to beer commercials on the school buses, but the solution is not to expose them to another kind of marketing.

Her group sent out letters to all 346 school districts in Massachusetts, urging them not to sign with BusRadio.

LINN: What are schools for? Are they to create good consumers or are they to create, you know, citizens who can function well in a democracy?

Back at Quashnet, the kids are more interested in the music than in the advertising controversy. But they can’t seem to agree on what kind of music they’d like to hear. I play a clip for them from a BusRadio pilot, to mixed reviews.

SOUND CLIP: You’re listening to BusRadio, hopefully you like what you hear. Coming up we’ll have contests, celebrity interviews, gossip reports and just about anything else you can think of. So tell your friends to e-mail their favorite songs to BusRadio.com.

KIDS: Oh my god . . . Please . . . Can you change it? . . . Killing us . . . Kelly Clarkson . . . Somebody call a doctor. I’m about to die.

BusRadio’s teen market might be captive, but it’s not subdued. The service launches this September here in Massachusetts and in a handful of districts around the country.

In Mashpee, this is Ian Gray for Marketplace.

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