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Actor LeVar Burton is well-known for his roles in “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But to some of his most devoted fans he is, first and foremost, the host of “Reading Rainbow.” The long-running children’s television show went off the air in 2009, but was recently reborn as an iPad app. We talk with Burton about his acting career and his passion for encouraging kids to become lifelong readers.
- LeVar Burton co-founder and curator-in-chief, Reading Rainbow; actor
Actor LeVar Burton discussed how he came to host PBS’s “Reading Rainbow” in the 1980s and how becoming a parent changed the way he addressed television viewers. Burton talked about some of the pressures surrounding the program’s recent re-launch as an iPad app. “It would have been easy to disappoint folks and that was absolutely what we did not want to do,” Burton said. “So that kept us up — that kept us awake at night.”
Trailer for the Reading Rainbow iPad app
LeVar Burton’s Memorable Roles
Burton hosts “Reading Rainbow” in this 1994 segment about how U.S. mail gets sorted:
Burton as Kunta Kinte in the television mini-series “Roots:”
Burton played Captain Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation:”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Parents and teachers have long struggled to get reluctant readers to seek out books, but in the early '80s, they gained a perhaps unlikely ally, television. Shows like "Sesame Street" put an emphasis on the ABCs and 1, 2, 3s, but the folks at PBS thought there had to be a way to foster a passion for books among those who had the basics down. Enter "Reading Rainbow" hosted by LeVar Burton, a young actor made famous in the groundbreaking miniseries "Roots."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe show was initially set to run just 15 episodes and instead ended its run on TV after 155 shows and a quarter century. Now it's back in version 2.0 as what else, an app. LeVar Burton is co-founder and curator-in-chief of "Reading Rainbow." He's also an actor, director, producer and writer. LeVar Burton, welcome, good to have you here.
MR. LEVAR BURTONThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIIn 1983, you were a young actor with the huge success of "Roots" a few years behind you. How did you get involved in "Reading Rainbow"?
BURTONI had already done a couple of seasons of a PBS show called "Rebop" that was produced out of WGBH in Boston and so had been introduced to the public broadcasting mission where children's programming was concerned. And I was on my way to Africa and in New York doing a "Live at Five" interview and they had just started looking for a host for the show and saw me on this interview and tracked me down before I had a chance to leave the country.
BURTONAnd told me about the show, said would you be interested in, you know, hosting a half an hour of children's television that brought them back in the direction of literature and the written word? And I was like, I'm in.
NNAMDIYou didn't audition for this at all?
NNAMDIThey just came after you?
NNAMDIA lot of fans were sorry to see the show go off the air. How much pressure was there to get the re-launch just right?
BURTONWell, you know, that was the biggest pressure, Kojo, the danger of failing to meet the expectations of the brand. It would have been easy to disappoint folks and that was absolutely what we did not want to do. So that kept us up, that kept us awake at nights.
NNAMDIDid becoming a parent yourself, watching your own kids learn and interact with technology, change the way you thought about the show's mission?
BURTONNot only did it change the way I thought about the show and its mission, it changed the way I addressed the audience. Because after becoming a father myself, it became really obvious that the easiest thing to do would be to speak through the lens of the camera to my children.
NNAMDISo in other words, you just like never went home, you just...
BURTONNo, what I mean was that talking to them became my focus in terms of my connection with the audience.
NNAMDIAnd now you'll be connecting with your audience through an app. Educators and parents worry about kids spending too much time looking at screens. Why bring the brand back as an iPad app?
BURTONTablet computers are those engaging devices that our kids want to be on. Look, television was the medium that we used in the '80s and the '90s right? "Reading Rainbow" was originally a summer series. It was designed to combat what teachers called the summer loss phenomenon...
BURTON...right? So we knew back then where our kids were hanging out, in front of the television and the idea was to go and meet them there and take them where we wanted them to go. The same principle holds true now. "Reading Rainbow's" mission has always been using the prevailing technology to connect kids to literature.
NNAMDIHowever, there are those who will bemoan the digital divide because the show aired on PBS. The original "Reading Rainbow" was available for free to anyone who had a television set. Does the fact that not everyone can afford access to this new iteration, so to speak, concern you at all?
BURTONIt does indeed. It absolutely does and I make it my business to involve myself in whatever efforts I can to close that divide. Look, Kojo, I believe that we have the ability with this technology to literally reinvent, revolutionize the way we educate our children in this country.
BURTONThese tablet computers are phenomenal. There should be one in the hand of every child in this...
NNAMDIHe's got one in front of him right now.
BURTON...country. I do. I love them. Look, I love sitting down and engaging with them. The possibilities are remarkable and so with that, we have an opportunity to capture the attention, the imagination of our children and give them something meaningful in terms of content. To not take advantage of that would be really foolish, in my view.
NNAMDIWe move on now to the phones. Here now is Iman in Rockville, Md.
IMANHello, Mr. Kojo Nnamdi, thank you for letting me call the show.
IMANMr. Burton, I was a big fan of "Reading Rainbow" when I was a little kid and I honestly believe that shaped my life into my adolescence and I would like to thank you very, very much for the gift of reading that you gave me. It's just amazing, thank you so much.
BURTONYou're so welcome.
NNAMDIHe did a really good job with you, Iman. You actually called me mister as you called him mister. Nobody calls me mister, but thank you so much "Reading Rainbow." Really did well for you. On now to Sarah in Reston, Va. Sarah, your turn.
SARAHOh, hi, I have butterflies in my stomach. I am so excited to be talking to LeVar today. I watched "Reading Rainbow" every day all the way into adolescence and I continue to be an avid reader today. I'm also a teacher. I teach 7th and 8th grades, primarily boys and I'm so excited that you have re-invented "Reading Rainbow" and that it's going to be available to kids today.
SARAHAnd I'm just curious, you know, what is your age range and do you have any plans to expand it into the 7th grade so I can keep out part of my students and get all excited and sing the songs to them?
BURTONWell Sarah, the age, the target age for the app is that sweet spot that "Reading Rainbow" was made for, the three to nine-year-olds. Having said that, this is just the first product launch, RRKidz, the parent company that produced and released the "Reading Rainbow" app. We have an intention to produce many more goods as well as services for children and their families that fall into the category of enriching, educational entertainment.
NNAMDISarah? Go ahead, please.
SARAHThat's so exciting, thank you so much.
BURTONYou're welcome, Sarah, thank you.
SARAHI am so excited to be on the phone with you, it's so silly.
BURTONTell your 7th graders I said, hello. Give them a hug for me and give them my best.
SARAHI'll give them a book, okay?
NNAMDISarah, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of teachers, let's speak with Scott in Martinsburg, W. Va. I think he's a teacher also. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTHey, Kojo, thanks for having me on. I'm very excited. I think this is probably your best show ever, in my opinion. I've listened to it a lot, but great show today. I am a middle school teacher. I teach health and phys ed. And whenever my students talk about butterflies, I always break into song singing the theme song to "Reading Rainbow" and the kids look at me like I'm crazy.
SCOTTBut, you know, I tell them about this show and how much I enjoyed it. And, you know, now that I have kids, little ones, I read to them and even have one of the books, "Imogene's Antlers," which was a great book that we really enjoy. So I want to say thank you and...
NNAMDIWell, let's just do this one time today so we don't have to do it anymore. Sing the song.
SCOTT(Singing) Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a look, it's in a book on "Reading Rainbow."
NNAMDIWas he off-key, LeVar?
BURTONNo. You know what? Randy would say little pitchy, dog, but, you know what, I ain't mad at you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Scott. You know, most actors are lucky to land one defining role in their career. By my count, you've had at least three so far, Kunta Kinte in "Roots," Geordi LaForge in "Star Trek," and host of "Reading Rainbow," which is less a role, I suspect, than your life's work, so to speak.
NNAMDIHow do those parts that you're well known for influence the career decisions you have made or that you will make moving forward?
BURTONYou know, there's so much in the life of an actor that you're not in control of. But the one thing that you can control is when you say yes. Sometimes you have to say a lot of no to get to the yes that you really want, which is always risky. When I look at my career -- not that I do all that often -- but when I look back at my career, I see at one end of the spectrum, Kunta, and then at the other end is Geordi La Forge, right, this future version of Kunta. And in the middle of that line stands LeVar.
NNAMDIWhere does "Reading Rainbow" stand?
BURTONThat's where LeVar is.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought. That's your life's work. When fans approach you, what's the role they ask you about most often?
BURTONDepends on their age, you know. Yeah, yeah, it really depends on their age. And I have to say, Kojo, the legion of "Reading Rainbow" fans is...
BURTON...and it's growing because now we are experiencing that generation of -- those first couple of generations of "Reading Rainbow" watchers who are now adults. And they are in the -- I mean, they're everywhere. Here I am in Washington, D.C. Every building I go into, it's, you know, populated by that generation, the "Reading Rainbow" nation. So it's pretty cool.
NNAMDII belong to the Kunta Kinte generation, but during the course of researching for this show and talking to people for this show, all of the other roles came up. But the one consistent that was in all of these people was their affinity for "Reading Rainbow." It didn't matter what generation they were from.
NNAMDIAllow me to read you some of the Tweets that we got. This one from Osi who says, "Playing 'Reading Rainbow' theme just reverted me to being a tiny kid sitting in my grandmother's house in Philly." Phil Tweets, "When I visited New York City I forced my girlfriend to walk across the George Washington Bridge with me because of the Tar Beach episode." Hilda Tweets, "'Reading Rainbow' was absolutely essential watching me growing up in Queens with non-English-speaking parents."
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from Harold who says, "Could you ask if Mr. Burton's work on shows like "Roots" or "Star Trek" influenced his approach to education and literacy advocacy."
BURTONWell, I suppose that there's an argument to be made that, you know, one of the themes of "Roots" was that at one point in this country it was illegal for people of color to learn how to read. And I know that in my own family that was really stressed as an inalienable right and that getting the best education that my mother couldn't afford was what it was all about, that that was the leveler of the playing field.
BURTONOne of the things my mother taught me from a very early age was that one day I would grow up and inherit a world that would be sometimes, and not due to any fault of my own, -- but I would inherit a world that would be hostile to my presence simply because of the color of my skin. And she was insistent upon giving me as many tools to reach my most full potential as she possibly could. And chief among them was education.
NNAMDITo be able to navigate that world is why my own parents made the same kinds of sacrifices for their children. Here is Lydia in Mount Rainer, Md. Lydia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYDIAHi, good afternoon. Absolutely I'm a big fan, of course. I'm also a teacher and artist. And my concern has been that there's a lot of emphasis on technology and moving forward in technology. But a lot of the kids that I teach are basically illiterate and they can't -- I mean, you know, this is the concern. That our kids are not competitive in the world, that, you know, you go to the store and if the cash register breaks they, you know, can't figure out.
BURTONCan't make change.
LYDIAExactly. That sort of thing, you know. I don't want to sound like an old person but I'm really -- I mean I'm definitely old school in how I teach. I'm an artist so I'm very hands on and when they were trying to force us to use the SMART Boards -- I mean I teach art it's just hands on. But even if I teach other things I think it's more important for them to have the basics. And so my question to you is how can we, or the culture, how can we promote just learning very simple things like we did when we growing up with simple tools and keep our and make our kids really smart?
BURTONWell, see here's the thing. I believe that there is a place for, you know, building blocks. Right? For the alphabet blocks that we all had when we were kids. And I believe that this technology can be a real integral part of a new way of teaching our children. And I'm committed to an effort which I believe has to be public, private partnership. I know that the government can't do it by itself. Our government's broke. We've spent far too much money in the last decade or so on the machinery of war and our coffers are empty. There's no money to educate our kids.
BURTONSo we have to -- and by me I mean we as the elders in society. Those who are 30 and above. It is up to us to make this a priority and to figure it out. This is America. We can do better than this. And we are contrary to public policy itself. We are leaving way too many children behind.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Mo Rockin who said "How do you generate a rabid Trek-like following in the reading community? Do we have to rely on franchises like 'Harry Potter?'" And Stacy in Washington D.C. has a question along that line also. Stacy, your turn.
STACYThank you for taking my call. And to you both this is obviously a well, well-received show. Big fan, obviously. My question is more about the business side. Your wonderful stories but I'm very excited to hear from the business perspective as you've referenced your partner. What do you perceive being your biggest challenges? Because this is a business that built itself on people who love and respect and can get behind you and I'm sure I am not the only one who wants to know what I can do as a consumer to support it in its success.
BURTONWow. I'm overwhelmed. What are the challenges? Going forward? Continuing to answer to the needs and the wants of our customers. Not running out of money, huge challenge. Continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the competition. I know that everybody's going to be coming after us in the marketplace. Educational tech -- ed tech is a huge, it's a multi-billion dollar industry.
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time. I'm so sorry, Stacy. But you know what? You can probably follow LeVar Burton on Twitter. To say that he is big on Twitter might be the understatement of the year. This guy has 1.7 million Twitter followers. What's your secret?
NNAMDIWell, you can follow that, Stacy. And I guess you'll find out a little more about how the business is doing right there. LeVar Burton, thank you so much for joining us.
BURTONKojo, thank you so much, man. I really enjoyed our time.
NNAMDISo did I. LeVar Burton is the co-founder and curator-in-chief of "Reading Rainbow." Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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