- Levar Burton, of “Roots” and “Reading Rainbow” fame, remains a champion of children’s literacy.
- He has a new startup and podcast, both of which are dedicated to carrying on the torch for literacy in a new age of technology.
Known for his acting roles on “Roots” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Levar Burton has also been a champion of children’s literacy for decades.
Burton hosted the influential PBS series “Reading Rainbow” from 1983 until 2006. In the following years, he has become an entrepreneur devoted to carrying on and expanding on the “Reading Rainbow” legacy.
Burton now has a startup, Levar Burton Kids, that promotes children’s literacy through new applications and technology. He also has a podcast, Levar Burton Reads, in which he reads selected short stories aimed at adult readers.
Business Insider spoke to Burton about the legacy of “Roots” and “Reading Rainbow,” his latest literary ventures, and the evolution of storytelling and literature in today’s fast-paced age of technology.
John Lynch: Mr. Burton, you worked on “Reading Rainbow” for two and a half decades. How did those years of experience inform your latest ventures in promoting literacy?
Levar Burton:With my latest ventures, one of them being Levar Burton Kids, I’m able to do the same work that I’ve done for the past, as you say, two and a half decades. But being out of the “Reading Rainbow” business, having surrendered the “Reading Rainbow” brand back to WNED, the Buffalo public television station that owns the mark, I feel like I have an opportunity now to expand my conversation with my audience to include social justice, through the “Roots” aspects of my personal brand, and science and STEM, through the “Star Trek” aspect of my personal brand. Not leaving literacy behind, but as I say, expanding the breadth of my conversation with my audience of children. Also, through Levar Burton Reads, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to create a storytelling experience that I share with an audience of adults now, who grew up on “Reading Rainbow.” We were successful in getting a couple of generations of kids interested in, in fact, hooked on reading, and this was an opportunity for me to continue that relationship around storytelling with them, through this burgeoning, emerging phenomenon of the podcast.
Lynch: Your startup, Levar Burton Kids, recently won $180,000 in funding at the NYC WeWorks Creator Awards. What will that money go toward, and what’s the mission behind the company?
Burton:Well, we’ll use the money to really scale that effort. When we created the “Reading Rainbow” app and released it in the summer of 2012, the intention was to sort of reinvent the “Reading Rainbow” brand for a new generation of digital consumers. A Kickstarter enabled us to take that app and expand it across all existing platforms, not just iTunes, but to get to the web, and to Android devices, and develop a product that was able to be used specifically by teachers in the classroom. The idea being, take that model of literature and the video field trips that were the core of the “Reading Rainbow” offering, when it was a TV show, and provide it in a digital realm to attempt to do the same thing we did with the technology of television in the 80s. Now that I’ve made the decision to walk away from the “Reading Rainbow” brand, the app and the attendant versions of it are re-branded as Skybrary, offered by Levar Burton Kids. My mission is the same. This prize money from the Creator Awards gives us the opportunity to retool the product, which will give us an opportunity to make it even more ubiquitous and available to a broader, wider number of kids.
Lynch: What drew you to podcasting, in particular, with Levar Burton Reads?
Burton:It really grew out of having made a conscious decision to become an entrepreneur and sink the lion’s share of my energies, over a period of five or six years, into the business of reinventing “Reading Rainbow,” and finding that I really needed a purely creative outlet that being an entrepreneur did not afford me. And in looking at the podcasting world, I saw, “Wow, I could do this with nobarrier to entry” – a phrase that I learned in the world of entrepreneurial startups[laughs]. That it was me and a microphone and a producer and a pack of stories that I had a burning desire to read aloud. It was so simple, and yet so fulfilling on a creative level. It was a deep-seated need of mine that was met with an effortless opportunity to get involved.
Lynch: To shift to TV for a minute, following your iconic role in the original “Roots” of the ’70s, you were an executive producer on the remake of the series last year. What was the impetus behind reviving it in 2016?
Burton:It really was about, at the end of the day, for me, keeping what I believe to be a very important story – it’s the story of this nation, after all, and the foundation of the creation of this nation, and the social dynamic that underpins everything that goes on in America. It was an opportunity to keep that story alive in culture. The original “Roots” is now 40 years old, and it’s unreasonable to expect that the current generation, based on their preferences and proclivities, and the way they consume content, it was unrealistic to expect for them to go and seek out the original “Roots,” to absorb that story and have it be a part of their worldview the way previous generations did because they were automatically exposed to it. So it became clear that if we wanted to keep this very important American story alive in culture, and I do, it was really important to retell that story in a storytelling style that this current generation would embrace.
Lynch: You were also on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which was itself a reboot. Reboots have always been a thing, but they’re increasingly common in film and TV. Outside of “Roots” and “Star Trek,” do you see that as a good thing for the industry?
Burton:It can be, but it is not always. Interestingly enough, it was my experience with the success of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that gave me even a modicum of confidence in believing that I could successfully reboot “Reading Rainbow” in the digital realm, for a modern audience. And then it was the success of my experience in both the “Star Trek” franchise and the “Reading Rainbow” franchise that led me to believe, “You know what, we might be able to hit the mark a third time with ‘Roots.'” It’s a crapshoot. There are no guarantees, but my career has informed me that when it’s done with the right intention and the right passion, it’s possible. Every time you get up to bat, you have an opportunity to either single, double, triple, home run, walk, or strike out.
Lynch: You have over 2 million Twitter followers, and you’re a beacon of positivity and humor on the site. What’s your key to staying positive when so much of Twitter is just a cesspool of hate?
Burton:[laughs]What a great question. I don’t have any choice, you know? As Jessica Rabbit would have said, “I’m just drawn this way,” man. It’s how I wake up in the morning. I am an eternal optimist, and I have come to understand my conscience in life, my place in the world. And in large measure, that’s as a cheerleader for a humanity, as an encourager of, to be clichéfor a moment,to boldly go, to pick up a book and take a look,to expand our horizons beyond the color of our skin and find our commonality in the human experience. That’s why I’m here, and I’m lucky enough to have had that mission supported by the universe. And I’m really grateful. I don’t wonder what my purpose is in life. I’m lucky to have discovered it very early on, and I’m just determined to do as much as I can while I’m here. And that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Lynch: With your Skybrary app and podcast, do digital forms like these make you optimistic that literature can survive, even in this age of technology and its fast pace?
Burton:Oh, absolutely. Without question. Storytelling is the root base of literature. Literature only came about because of our need to share stories. We began around the fire, right? And then we started drawing pictures on the walls of the cave, and then those pictures evolved into a written language. And then we invented paper and we started sharing that information and those stories, in ways that enabled us to perpetuate the storytelling in non-local ways. And then we invented the printing press, and that exploded storytelling and information dissemination. And then radio and television and motion pictures all came rapidly on the heels of one another. Television was the simply the technology that we used in the ’80s to get kids hooked on storytelling, literature, the written word. The need to share stories is the common element throughout the course of the evolution of humanity. The technology will always continue to change, morph, grow, evolve, but it’s the storytelling that’s essential to the nature of our being.
Lynch: A few last questions about reading. What was the last book you read that you were eager to recommend to people?
Burton:I guess that would have to be a “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. That one I went out of my way to read. I sought that book out because of the recommendations of others, who said, “You haven’t readZinn? Brother. You’ve got to get a hold of that sh-t.” And so I did, and they were right. It really expanded my point of view, and reaffirmed and reinforced some ideas that had been swirling around in my consciousness for a long time.
Lynch: There are a lot of people, especially working adults, who avoid reading altogether and are sort of stubborn about it. What advice would you give non-reading adults to inspire them to read?
Burton:I would encourage them to A) not to feel guilty about not reading. And in the next breath, I would want to make sure that they consider that even without being a reader, it is possible through audio literature to continue to engage in the very important, developmental activity of storytelling, exposing oneself to different points of view, different ideas, information. Even for pure pleasure, the idea of engaging one’s mind and surrendering oneself to an experience created by a creator, a writer, a storyteller, has invaluable benefits to our continuing growth and evolution as individuals.