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MBTA again considers audio ads on its buses

SEEKING REVENUE The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, the agency’s general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.” SEEKING REVENUE
The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, the agency’s general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.”
By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2011

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For the second time in four years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is considering selling audio ads on public transit as a way to drum up new revenue for the cash-strapped agency.

A new pitch calls for targeted ads on buses that would be triggered by GPS technology. When the bus passes a particular business, an ad for that shop could play over the vehicle’s loudspeaker.

If the audio advertising idea can generate money for the MBTA without irritating riders, officials said they will give it a try.

In 2007, the agency’s T- Radio, a program that mixed music and talk on T station platforms was short-lived. Hundreds of complaints poured in, and the MBTA killed the initiative after two weeks, before ads were aired.

The MBTA is not yet sold on the latest idea, general manager Richard A. Davey said. “We’re going to take a look at it. We haven’t made a decision, but it’s something I’m interested in.’’

Before the end of the month, MBTA officials will hear a pitch from Ohio-based Commuter Advertising, which has launched similar advertising with several transit authorities, from Toledo, Ohio, to suburban Chicago, since its founding in 2008.

“The company was founded by two transit riders,’’ said Russ Gottesman, cofounder of Commuter Advertising. For that reason, he said, they have the riders’ interests and their tolerance levels at heart.

If the ads are profitable, Gottesman said, it could help prevent fare hikes.

The MBTA, which struggles annually to balance its budget, has thumbed through money-making ideas for years. It debated a fare hike in 2009 and unveiled a multifaceted strategy in February that includes selling ads on CharlieCards.

The latest proposal is more targeted. The ads would run between 29 and 39 words, a short message that would play when a bus drives past a business whose owner has purchased air time. The ads would be limited to a few minutes per hour.

Gottesman said riders in cities that already have the ads on their buses do not mind them, based on the company’s surveys.

“Just under 90 percent of all riders surveyed are either OK with or actually like the sponsorship messages,’’ Gottesman said.

That statistic seems to be borne out in Champaign, Ill., which has used such advertisements since August 2009.

“We carried 10.5 million riders last year and had probably about 25 complaints, total,’’ said Jan Kijowski, marketing director for the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District.

But in Boston, where 380,000 people ride MBTA buses on a typical weekday, public opinion is difficult to predict.

“It’s almost impossible to say what people will go for,’’ said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board. He said Commuter Advertising seems like a germane way for businesses to reach members of their communities.

“Having said that, I can certainly imagine that people will hate it,’’ he said.

Ben Wolford can be reached at bwolford@globe.com.