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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 NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. 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.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShows 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. Here to talk about the brand and his varied career is LeVar Burton.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe 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 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.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join the conversation with LeVar Burton. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Did you watch "Reading Rainbow" as a kid? Have you downloaded the app for your child? Give us a call. Would you like to see more shows and apps with an educational focus? 800-433-8850
BURTONAll good questions, man.
NNAMDIYou're ready to call yourself, right? Did 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.
NNAMDIWhen word got around this station that you were coming to the show, several colleagues nearly broke out in song. Is the theme of "Reading Rainbow" a part of the app?
BURTONIt is, it's all over the app, as we say. It's all up in there. We, again, we really wanted to create an experience certainly for those parents who grew up on the show, who would be introducing their children to "Reading Rainbow." We wanted them to feel safe, comfortable, familiar, and for the child who has no frame of reference for LeVar or for "Reading Rainbow," we knew we needed to nail a fun experience for them as well.
BURTONSo the fact that the centerpiece of the app is the books, we launched with over 150 titles, literature -- the finest literature we could find available for kids and converted them into these digital books, enhanced digital books. And we also have in the app videos, the video field trips that really were the hallmark of "Reading Rainbow" when it was a television series on the air.
NNAMDIWell, when word arrived that you were coming here, people have been running around all day, around the station singing.
NNAMDIOur engineer's stopped singing and allowed me to get back to this.
BURTONThat's the wonderful Tina Fabrique singing the "Reading Rainbow" theme song.
NNAMDIBut it's gone through a whole lot of iteration, the "Reading Rainbow" theme and...
BURTONYeah, yeah, yeah.
NNAMDI...I was just wondering what you thought about the one in which Jimmy Fallon thought he was Jim Morrison?
NNAMDII was impressed, but I'm not important. How about you?
BURTONOh man, I tell you, I was blown away. Not only does Jimmy do a spot on Morrison, but he's a genuine "Reading Rainbow" fan and that version of the song is on his album. We had the opportunity to be on his show not too long ago to introduce the world to the "Reading Rainbow" app and Jimmy's been a big fan, a big supporter.
NNAMDIHe's one of literally millions, but speaking about it being an app, educators and parents worry about kids spending too much time looking at screens. Why bring the brand back as an iPad app?
BURTONUm, 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.
NNAMDIMy granddaughter can do things with a tablet computer that I have not yet even dreamed of. Our guest is LeVar Burton. He is the co-founder and curator-in-chief of "Reading Rainbow." He's, of course, an actor, director, producer and writer. We're inviting you to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Do you think educational entrepreneurs can fill a gap that the government can't in its schools? 800-433-8850, send us a tweet @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. Here is Altai in Washington, D.C. Altai, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALTAIHey, Kojo, a long-time listener, first-time caller.
ALTAIThroughout elementary school, I remember my teachers would play the "Reading Rainbow" almost every class. I was wondering if LeVar Burton had any plans to bring the app back to the classroom.
BURTONNow that we are launched in the consumer market, now begins our outreach to the educational community so absolutely we have. When "Reading Rainbow" was on the air, it was the most used television resource in our nation's classroom and I would love to see the app similarly employed.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on now to Iman in Rockville, Md. Iman, your turn.
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. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with LeVar Burton. "Reading Rainbow" is now an app. LeVar Burton is known as an actor, director, producer and writer. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Star Trek New Generation fans, we know you're out there with questions. We can't begin to guess what they might be, but give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with LeVar Burton. He is cofounder and curator and chief of "Reading Rainbow." You also know him as an actor, director, producer and writer. "Reading Rainbow" is now an app and that's one of the things we're talking to LeVar Burton about today. The phone lines are busy so if you're trying to get through, it might be better to send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIIn addition to this re-launch, LeVar Burton, you're back on TV in a new series that premiered last week. What made you decide to take on both of these projects at once? Too much energy?
BURTONNo, no, no, no. The timing. The timing is something of which we have -- over which we have no control. And so as it happens, you know, my business partner Mark and I embarked on this journey with launching the "Reading Rainbow in a new way in the digital space over two years ago. And it was almost three years ago that we shot the pilot for "Perception." And as it happened, both events sort of dovetailed this summer and are being born at the same time. So, you know, you just never know how things are going to turn out.
NNAMDIWell, the Washington Post review for "Perception" says just a warning to procedural junkies looking to tune into TNT's new series on "Perception," there's no way you're solving any of these cases. Is that true?
BURTONWell, you know what? I hadn't really thought about it, but it -- they do throw you curves. The show really does throw you curves. First of all, it's not a traditional procedural. It's more of a character piece that masquerades as a procedural because Eric McCormack plays under a scientist who's also schizophrenic. And so we see the workings -- we see his brain chemistry at work in his life in ways that are very successful and in some not so successful ways as well.
NNAMDIWell, telling people like me that there's no way we're going to be able to figure it out is a guarantee that we'll be watching the show. That's a challenge, baby.
BURTONThat's a challenge, the gauntlet thrown down.
NNAMDIThank you. Here's Victoria in Washington, D.C. Victoria, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VICTORIA...for having me. It is such a pleasure to speak to you both today. I just wanted to say I have a seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter. And when we had the Direct TV, the TiVo player, we would TiVo any "Reading Rainbows" that were on the air. And I think we caught like the last show, which was your illusions -- optical illusions. And it was one that my daughter loved because we were -- she has seen and gone through with me, which I don't know what people think of this, but every single "Next Gen" episode 'cause I am a "Star Trek" fan.
VICTORIAAnd so for her seeing -- you showed how snow fell or how you were climbing up a rock face and these different things. And then when you went onto the bridge and showed the bridge, she was just so excited to be -- see a behind-the-scenes look at her favorite show. And since then, we have just been, you know, trying to find "Reading Rainbow" and trying to find replays of it. And other then a little bit here and there, we can't really find it. So we're both really excited and when I pick her up from camp this afternoon, I'll be sure to tell her.
BURTONWell, I'm happy to report that soon, in the not too distance future, you will be able to find the "Reading Rainbow" episodes on iTunes.
VICTORIAOh, that's great. I'm very excited. So my congratulations on doing that again and it's always great to always see you in all the "Star Trek "stuff, which -- anyway, so...
BURTONHow old is your daughter? You said she's seven?
BURTONAnd she's seen every episode of "Star Trek, The Next Generation."
VICTORIAYeah, it's not like we're sitting there watching all the time, but if she's home sick, it's the first thing she asks. And actually her first crush, which was quite surprising, she grabbed my leg and said, oh, he's so cute. And I said, who? And she said, Commander Riker. And I was just, what? (unintelligible) hilarious and so in her stocking -- in her Christmas stocking, she got a Command Riker doll this last Christmas.
BURTONWow. Victoria, thank you.
NNAMDIVictoria, thank you very much for your call. You know, most actors are lucky to land one defining role in their career. By my count, you have had at least three so far.
NNAMDIKunta Kinte in "Roots," Geordi La Forge on 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.
NNAMDISo we move on to Simi in Fredericksburg, Va. Hi, Simi.
SIMIHi, guys. Thank you for having me on the show. I miss your laugh, LeVar, absolutely. Not only is it full of life, see, it's contagious. You make me want to laugh. Okay. The second thing is how do I get the "Reading Rainbow" song on CD? I'm 47 years old and I want to add it to my Shabbat music.
BURTONI believe the "Reading Rainbow" song is also in iTunes.
BURTONYes, it's on iTunes.
NNAMDIWho's that guy giving you the thumbs up over there?
BURTONThat's my business partner, Mark Wolff.
NNAMDII know it is. I know, I met Mark...
SIMIIt's amazing how I wake up in the morning, especially on Shabbat, and that song pops in my head because it captures the whole point of reading.
BURTONThere you go.
SIMIMy last thing is, please tell us how you're doing with the genealogy work that you've done because I'm a big fan of the National Genome project for National Geographic. And I'm on this really -- I have an army all in myself to tell the world that there is only one race and it's the human race. So what we see on the outside, it shouldn't be judged by what's on the inside. We're just one race of human beings.
BURTONI agree, Simi.
NNAMDI"Roots" inspired people of all backgrounds to research their genealogy and...
BURTONIt became a national pastime.
NNAMDI...and still is to a large extent. According to the BBC, you linked yourself up genetically with the Hausa...
BURTONSo you're a Hausiga (sp?) ?
BURTONI am. Apparently so. I mean, I share genetic material with people who originate from that part of the planet, yeah.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Simi. Here is Machala in Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Machala, you're on the air.
MACHALAHi. Thanks, Kojo. I actually have the same question that I think your first caller had about the audience of "Reading Rainbow" 'cause I just remember, you know, watching it in elementary school and I don't ever remember it expanding to sort of a group growing as a I grew into other age ranges of literature. So I actually had the same question so I'm glad to know that there's more to come.
MACHALAThank you so much.
BURTONYou're welcome, Machala.
NNAMDIBack to your career for a second. Legend lore has it that when you went out for the part of Kunta Kinte at 19, it was your very first professional audition. That's correct?
NNAMDIDid being part of "Roots" change the way you think about the issue of race?
BURTONOh my god, yeah.
NNAMDIYou're 19 years old. You're coming out of the University of Southern California...
BURTONI was a sophomore, yeah.
NNAMDI...where you've been studying and all of a sudden, you are thrown into this avalanche of historical information shown from a unique perspective. It had to have an influence on you.
BURTONWell, I mean, it was not a pebble thrown in a pond. It was a boulder that was thrown in -- certainly in the pond that was my life. And I also concurrently experienced real ripples and waves going through the American consciousness as well. Seven nights -- eight nights of television I watched this nation become transformed around an issue that goes to the heart of almost everything that happens in this country, in this culture. There are very few things that you can point to or identify that do not have at some point their roots in slavery and its legacy of racism. Not in this country, you cannot.
BURTONAnd so it was eye-opening to me the sheer power of this medium of telecommunications that we really can create major societal change given the right kind of content, right. Storytelling done well, a good story well told that is informative and enlightening and uplifting as well as entertaining. It became the holy grail for me in terms of how I wanted to spend the rest of my career.
NNAMDIBut this is 1977. You're a young guy and what happens in America is that America gathers around its television sets for the week of this program. You are catapulted into fame at this point that a lot of people would say, well, it couldn't get any much better than this. How were you able to handle it that family background, having a family made up of teachers and people who were soldiers and the like? Is that what kept you -- to use a pun -- rooted?
BURTONI know that I survived that period of my life adjusting to fame because of the foundation that my family provided. And I say survived because, you know, that was it. That was -- I had to learn how to deal with it and still stay in balance, you know. And over the years I have to say, you know, I've had good days, I've had some bad days.
NNAMDIWhen you say -- when you start out the first time with Cecily Tyson playing your mother and Maya Angelou playing your grandmother.
BURTONYeah, man, yeah.
NNAMDIAfter that, you wanna just beat people up. Here is Autumn in Alexandria, Va. Autumn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AUTUMNHello. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say that I'm a huge fan of Mr. Burton's and I'm really glad to get the opportunity to speak with you. I watched your "Reading Rainbow" show when I was kid myself. And now I'm a mother to a four-month old. And my question is, what is the advisability of using technology with very young children? Like, we see tablet computers. I heard the part where you said that you really enjoyed tablet computers yourself and really enjoyed getting to use them.
AUTUMNAnd so I was wondering if anybody's really kind of looked at, are we forcing our children into using technology before they're really ready for it? We -- are we messing up their development in some way by using things that are flashing lights and those kinds of things before they're really developmentally ready for it?
NNAMDIWe've actually done a show about this and I was looking in my notes to see exactly when we did it. I'm sure somebody will tell me fairly shortly, but the conclusion that some of the experts came to on the show that we did was that under two years old is the most difficult time to introduce kids to too much technology and too many screens. We did the show on November 17 of 2011. You can find it in our archives, but here's LeVar Burton.
BURTONYou know what? I think that there is a danger and it's good to know that there are some people out there who are doing the empirical research to find out. I would -- probably I would agree. Two years or younger is too young. However, that genie is out of the bottle where -- you know, where our children are concerned and they're going to be drawn to this technology. And it's important that we as parents remain the gatekeepers. I always say it's my house. And when I say the television goes off, it goes off.
NNAMDIThank you. No locked doors in my house. But I think that...
AUTUMNThat's a really excellent point (unintelligible) definitely.
BURTONIf you don't want your kids to be on the technology, damn it, take it away.
AUTUMNYeah, exactly. Well, also I...
NNAMDIBut because you've said, LeVar Burton, that essentially that horse has left the barn...
NNAMDI...does it now become important for parents that themselves understand how to use the technology appropriately so that they can instruct their children?
BURTONWithout question, because our children are growing up really technologically literate. And unless we can at least engage in that conversation with them, it will be yet another reason for their silence in our lives.
NNAMDIYou were about to say, Autumn -- I interrupted you.
NNAMDIYou were going to say, Autumn...
AUTUMNOh, yes. I was going to say that I heard a quote. I think it was probably on NPR, that it's only technology to the people who were alive before it was invented. So, you know, there are only so many things out there that will not be new technology to my son. They will just be part of his everyday life. And you just wonder with all of the new findings on neurological disorders and ADHD and dyslexia and those kinds of things if we're pushing our children too far when it comes to technology that's new and exciting for us, but it's just a part of their everyday life.
NNAMDIIf they're digital natives, they're just a part of their everyday lives?
BURTONI believe that's true.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Autumn. Allow 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."
NNAMDISarah Tweets, "My mom worked from home so we watched a lot of PBS. 'Reading Rainbow' was my favorite. I can still sing the whole theme song." AC Tweets, "LeVar Burton was my favorite voice of any guest since Harry Belafonte." We did have Harry Belafonte on this show about a year ago talking about his memoir. Ann-Marie tweets "'Reading Rainbow' made me the book worm that I am today. I'm glad that kids get the chance to learn to love books as I did years ago."
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here is Laura in Derwood, Md. Laura, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURAOh, hi. It's wonderful to talk to both of you. I'm so much enjoying the show. LeVar, I followed you through "Roots." And it was a national phenomena when we didn't have 700 channels.
LAURAI mean, everybody watched "Roots." And for the first time, there really was, you know, a bit of a conversation, national conversation, about race.
LAURABut, I wish we could have that kind of conversation again. Okay, so. I also -- you wrote a book, at least one -- I don't know if you've written more than one. A science fiction book that I came across and I read it and I really enjoyed it.
LAURAAre you going to write any more science fiction?
BURTONI am. I envision that I'll have yet another career as a writer. But that's when I move to the Caribbean. And can wake up...
NNAMDIAnd hang out with me.
BURTONYeah, right? And that's in a few years time. I would love to get back to writing. Right now there just isn't enough time to do that.
LAURAI understand that.
BURTONThat was well over a year of fairly concentrated work and I was gainfully employed on a television series doing "Star Trek" at the time. So, you know, I could afford to write. I can't afford to write right now.
NNAMDILaura, you had another question?
LAURAA question about the app, which is that I just looked -- it's only available on the iPad. Is it going to be available on Android operating systems or even the computer?
BURTONWe are sorting through the playing field in the Android universe and we are going to try and pick the winning horse in that derby. But we will be porting to Android hopefully, definitely before the end of the year.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Laura. We're going to take another short break. If you have calls, stay on the line we'll try to get to your call. If you find the lines are busy, send us a tweet at kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org and ask a question or make a comment for LeVar Burton there. He is our guest. He is co-founder and curator-in-chief of "Reading Rainbow." You also know him as an actor, director, producer and writer. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking with LeVar Burton, co-founder and curator-in-chief of the "Reading Rainbow." LeVar Burton is an actor, director, producer and writer. And "Reading Rainbow" is now an app. That's one of the things he's here to talk about. We got a tweet from Bethany who says "I grew up watching 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' and loved Geordi's matter-of-fact attitude towards his own blindness and Data's indifference."
NNAMDIDrew in Alexandria emails "For your role in 'Star Trek' how challenged were you by the visor covering your eyes? Did you have a hand in getting rid of the visor for the films?"
BURTONI did. I did, I did.
NNAMDIHow hard was it to play a character whose eyes the audience couldn't see?
BURTONYou know, it was not easy, Kojo. It really wasn't. And at the same time, I was acutely aware -- the producers always maintained that Geordi's visor was important because to someone just tuning in to the show perhaps for the first time -- Geordi's visor an example of the technological sophistication that we had achieved in the 24th century. And I got that. I understood that. However, when I put the visor on, about 85 to 95 percent of my vision was taken away.
BURTONAnd after about a half hour, 40 minutes, it began to give me a headache so I always maintained that it was, you know, if our technology was so sophisticated then let's put it in, you know, in an ocular implant. And so finally when we got to the movies, we had the opportunity to do that.
NNAMDIBecause for an actor, your eyes are so important. You can take away your eyes and you want to revolt. Here is Christopher in Fort Mead, Md. Hi, Christopher.
CHRISTOPHERHow you doing Mr. Kojo? Good to hear from you.
CHRISTOPHERMr. Burton. It's my honor to be talking with you, sir. I listened and I watched "Reading Rainbow" every day of my life growing up. Faithfully. My sister and I. My mother made sure that was a part of our daily routine. She ingrained reading into our heads and that's one of the reasons why I am the reader and the writer that I am today. And the best episode -- I'm not saying this is my favorite I'm telling everyone out there that the best episode was the "Honey" episode.
BURTONLifecycle of the honey bee.
CHRISTOPHERYes! Yes, sir. That was the best episode. Every time I think of "Reading Rainbow" I come back to that one. But I wanted to ask you -- I didn't know you were a writer. And for me "Reading Rainbow" even at that age where all children are these bundles of ideas and dreams -- "Reading Rainbow" for me was a way point or a gateway or a filter, rather, to push me towards wanting to read and wanting to be a writer.
CHRISTOPHERAnd I'm a writer now and I have this story that's deep in my gut that I've started on and I've been dreaming about it for years and years. And I know you're a writer and I just wanted to ask you your advice on getting from one page to the next or trying to funnel all of that ocean's worth of ideas to the faucet of a pen, so to speak.
BURTONMy only advice is I think the best advice I was ever given where writing is concerned and that was keep writing.
BURTONRight. That's what you do. You sit down and you don't necessarily have to have ideas in your head. You just start writing.
NNAMDIIt's, from what I understand, from the authors I've interviewed the only way to write.
NNAMDIYou just write it, Christopher. Write it down. Rewrite it. Rewrite it again.
BURTONYeah, that's it. That's the process.
CHRISTOPHERI'll do it.
NNAMDIChristopher, thank you very much for your call. I understand you were a sci-fi fan long before you were cast on the "Next Generation."
BURTONOh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
NNAMDIWere you at all intimidated by the idea of becoming part of such an iconic series? But having met you I realize now that's a stupid question. Nothing seems to intimidate you.
BURTONWell, I was really comforted knowing that Gene Roddenberry was involved. Because he was the visionary. He was the great bird of the galaxy. This was all his -- this was all his idea. So I figured, you know, when I got the call that was the question I asked. Is Gene Roddenberry involved? And that was an occasion, Kojo, where I auditioned, I was willing to do whatever was necessary to get in. To be a part of it.
NNAMDI'Cause you were a true fan.
NNAMDIOn to Samantha in Vienna, Va. Samantha, your turn.
SAMANTHAHi, I was wondering if you have considered developing applications based on other amazing PBS shows such as "Wishbone" or "Ghost Rider" that might appeal more to the older age children?
BURTONWell, the answer is yes we are looking at developing other applications based on other brands. But not the ones that you mentioned. We are aggregating other brands under our umbrella and will be in the fullness of time releasing enriching products that are based on those brands, as well. But those specific PBS brands -- "Reading Rainbow" is the only PBS brand that we have the rights to. And we control the exclusive worldwide and perpetual rights to the "Reading Rainbow" brand.
NNAMDISamantha, thank you for your call. Marty in Winchester, Va. writes "I'm a fan of LeVars from the 'Roots' generation so you can imagine that I'm also technology challenged. I'm also a fourth grade teacher, the upper end of 'Reading Rainbow.' One the greatest resources many teachers are using today are SMART Boards. Interactive white boards with smart technology. Is there any way of making this app SMART Board available?"
BURTONWe have looked at that and would love to be able to move in that direction. There's something in the entrepreneurial world called MVP. Minimum viable product. And you have to get to marketplace with something otherwise you will experience what is called feature creep. And you are putting yourself as a business in jeopardy of never getting to market. And so we had to really be very firm in our decision making in terms of what we were going to release with and then all of the other iterations can come as a result of having released this.
NNAMDIMinimal viable product.
BURTONMinimum viable product.
NNAMDIAnd feature creep.
NNAMDITwo new phrases I learned today. Here is Tony in Washington D.C. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Mr. Burton I'm a big fan. You were a fixture of my childhood. I was lucky enough to be in a generation where "Reading Rainbow" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation" overlapped. So it was a seamless integration for me to see you on the screen. My wife and I just had our first child and even though she's only four months old I'm looking ahead to the kind of programming that she's going to be watching, you know, when she turns two or three.
TONYAnd I'm wondering if you and your production company have any plans to feature bi-lingual material. I read to my daughter in both English and Spanish and it would be great if she could supplement that kind of education with programming that's aimed for children like her.
BURTONAbsolutely. In fact many of the books in our service -- on the "Reading Rainbow" app are, you know, both in English and in Spanish. So do check those out. You know, we have again plans to roll out so many products for children and for their families and I'm just pretty excited about, you know, what the future holds for us and how we might be able to better serve our customers.
NNAMDITony, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Howard 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 is 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 that -- 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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