This on my local NPR affiliate yesterday: School districts in Massachusetts are considering something called “BusRadio” that would broadcast advertisements and other marketing and promotional content to children while they are riding to school! Of course, the broadcast would include some “educational” programming, but with the goal of marketing more products to kids and training them to be consumers. Not only is America making Iraq safe for business, it is making school busses safe for business. Capitalism cures all ills.

The Coalition for a Commercial-Free Childhood is fighting this exploitation. In their press release on BusRadio, they describe it as follows:

“BusRadio broadcasts will feature eight minutes of advertisements and two minutes of sponsored contests per hour. In addition, BusRadio is offering advertisers the option to sponsor entire blocks of programming or provide a celebrity disc jockey (who can then promote a brand, movie, or music). Because it is not monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, BusRadio can feature music that they are paid to play. Broadcasts will promote BusRadio’s website which will feature even more advertising, allow students to download music, and purchase items from the BusRadio on-line store. BusRadio is also promoting its website as a place where companies can conduct market research with children, and it appears that the site will be used to collect student’s personal information.”

What will the schools get in return? Presumably the same quiet little zombies that you get when you park the kids in front of the TV. According to BusRadio’s website:

“Bus safety is the most important issue that a bus driver faces. Their biggest concern is getting the students to and from school with as few interruptions and disciplinary problems as possible. BusRadio has proven to be a great tool in doing just that.

An independent study, conducted by Edison Media Research, found that overall student behavior improved dramatically with the implementation of BusRadio programming. Edison Research specifically found…

Noise levels were reduced
Students remained in their seats
Students willingness to follow rules increased

Drivers used BusRadio as a behavioral tool…If kids misbehaved, they lost the privilege of listening to the show.”

Perhaps this is an improvement over the use of commercial radio on school busses to keep kids quiet. BusRadio argues that at least their material is more “appropriate.” But why are kids listening to any kind of radio and advertising on school busses? Why can’t kids be allowed to be kids and actually interact with each other, even if such interaction sometimes causes problems? How will kids ever learn to talk and think if the loud drone of some media, interspersed with sound bites, trivia, and ear candy is the continual backdrop to their socialization and conversation? How will kids ever learn to solve problems and deal with others if their behavior is constantly being controlled and manipulated by some mind-numbing and pacifying agent? Is it any wonder that there are so many children diagnosed and misdiagnosed with ADHD when their ability to focus is being undermined by multiple distractions?

What did kids do on school busses before there was BusRadio? They talked, sometimes about schoolwork or their teachers and sometimes about the sort of things that are relevant only to kids. They joked, but they also bullied and teased. They shared jokes, but they also shared wisecracks. They caused disruptions. They looked out the window and actually noticed the world around them and learned discernment and awareness. They got into fights. They laughed, they cried. In other words, they lived. They were not mindless little robots to be pacified and fed garbage.

What did school bus drivers do in those troubled times? I’m sure there were accidents, but maybe not so many as today. Maybe then school bus drivers got a better wage and, consequently, were more skilled? Maybe they were better skilled at not only driving, but in dealing with children’s behavior problems, because they didn’t use such pacifying agents at home with their own kids. Maybe they, themselves, actually entertained and interacted with the kids.

And while I concede that distraction increases the risk of accidents, even among the most skilled drivers, I would argue that there might be alternative solutions to this problem. If radio works to manage behavior, then why can’t the content at least be commercial free and educative with an appealing and entertaining delivery? Why can’t, as in some school districts, there be monitors on every bus, so that drivers don’t have to manage behavior and interact with the kids? These could be paid paraprofessionals/teachers aides or education students getting their “field experience,’ that being only one aspect of it. What better way to learn to manage behavior?

Who would pay for this? Well, if states and local school districts weren’t cash-strapped due to the feds throwing billions into the money-pit that is Iraq, then there might be some trickle-down dollars.