LeVar Burton on ‘Reading Rainbow,’ the future of ‘Star Trek’ and why Google Glass freaks him out


LeVar Burton has worn many hats -- or at least types of headgear -- in his career. "Star Trek" fans know him as the visor-sporting chief of engineering Geordi La Forge, while others still associate him with the 1977 television adaptation of Alex Haley's "Roots." But for a whole generation of adults who grew up on public television programming, he will always be the host of "Reading Rainbow."

Now Burton, who has spent the past two years reviving "Reading Rainbow" for the digital age with a new company, RRKidz, has asked those fans to contribute to an ambitious pan to bring the core of that program back to schools across the country. The campaign first asked for $1 million -- and met that goal within a day. Thus far, the campaign has raised over $3.8 million dollars. It ends July 2.

Burton joined The Switch's Hayley Tsukayama last week to talk about the campaign, and the "Reading Rainbow" reboot. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hayley Tsukayama: I know you started with a million-dollar goal and have just crushed it, with plenty of time left in the campaign. Can you talk a little bit about the reaction that you’ve gotten?

Levar Burton: It’s been really overwhelming, Hayley. Even two weeks into it, it’s difficult to put into words because it’s been so surprising and totally overwhelming. I mean, we never anticipated this. We never expected this. You know, most Kickstarters are 30 days in length, and we set ours to 35 in case we needed that extra time. 

You talk a lot about literacy on the Kickstarter, but when I think of "Reading Rainbow," I think of it as fostering a love of reading. That, of course, goes hand in hand with literacy, but I’d like to get your thoughts on that.

When we speak about literacy, traditionally, we are talking about knowing how to read. And there is, at least for me, a different between those that know how to read and those that love to read. Those who love to read self-select as readers for life. And if you are a reader for life then you are a learner for life. And that’s a whole different animal altogether.

If you love to read and you recognize that with a relationship with the written world the world is open to you, then you’re more than just “literate.” You are empowered.

I know you’ve had a successful tablet app that’s been around for…?

Two years!

And I know that has been received well not only in people’s homes, but also in schools. Could you talk about how teachers use the tablet app and how you hope this campaign will expand that integration.

That’s the thing. Again, another surprising thing that’s kind of overwhelming is that we’ve discovered that teachers are going into their pockets and adapting this consumer product that’s not designed for use in schools, it’s designed for use in the home -- for the family. They’re really using it in the classroom. And what we decided to do is that we wanted to put a product in their hands, a version of the "Reading Rainbow" app that is made specifically for them with the bells and whistles that the teachers will need and want to carry out their duties in the classroom everyday.

In the reporting I’ve done on how reading has evolved in the classroom, there’s a lot of fretting about screen time. You know, people are asking, "Are kids getting too much screen time? They’re not picking up books anymore." 

Well, here’s the crazy thing for me, having been in this game for so long. When we started "Reading Rainbow" in 1983, the conversation was about, well, “Are kids watching way too much television and is that harming their ability to learn?” And, in a very unorthodox and perhaps risky move, we decided to go right to the heart of it and use that very powerful technology at the time, television, to steer kids back into the direction of the written word. So I chuckle because, 30 years later, we’re having the same conversation, and meanwhile kids are reading 184,000 books a week.

So all of the experts can all have the conversation they want. Meanwhile, I just want kids to read. I don’t care if it’s on a bound book, I don’t care if it’s a tablet, I don’t care if it’s on your phone. I just want kids to read.

Could you talk a bit more about what you’ve learned from the tablet app, what you’ve drawn from that and what you hope to change going forward?

The biggest thing we’ve learned from the app and its performance so far, is that we have proven that kids will come to these devices specifically to read. It’s not just to play games, but to read, okay? And that’s a game changer, for me -- pun intended -- it’s a game changer!

Because we know they will self-select on these tablets. That, just the same way they would, back in the ′80s and ′90s, would get up from the television after the show and go out and get books, now we know we can deliver those books on the screen that they’re consuming the content on. It just opens up a whole new world.

It’s so important, to me, to instill at the very moment that humans are making the decision as to whether they’ll be a reader for life or not, at that very moment, they need something like "Reading Rainbow." Something that tips the scales in favor of saying, absolutely, “I’m a reader.” Because if you can read, then you are free. No one can enslave you. No one can pull the wool over your eyes. No one has the power to dominate to you because you have the wherewithal to not have to take anyone’s word for it.

I see what you did there. I noticed you’ve added some new events and that your fellow "Star Trek" actors have joined you to do some events. What was the reaction you’ve gotten from them, and how did this all come about?

First, let how much I love my friends. And they know how this mission is to me and continues to be to me. And they have all, without exception, said an immediate, unhesitating yes. And I love that about my friends. It’s hard for me to ask for help.

It was a very difficult to publicly ask for money for "Reading Rainbow," actually. It was not easy. And once we made the decision to go ahead and use the crowdfunded method, for financing our growth, there was no looking back.

Why was that such a difficult decision? To me, it seems very logical. As you say, you have two generations of adults who grew up with it.

Well, in hindsight, it seems very logical. But, you know, I am the steward of the brand now. This company, RRKidz, was created to carry that stewardship forward. On a business level, it was risky taking a 30-year old platinum brand and asking very publicly for financial support. Had it gone horribly wrong, it could have meant the end of the brand.

Because we’re a Washington audience, I’m interested to know if there are other technology and policy issues that you are interested in sharing an opinion about.

Going forward, bandwidth is certainly going to be an issue for classrooms. And that’s something we’ll need to work together on in a public-private partnership.

I really believe that the model going forward, the sustainable models, is one where we do not expect the business sector to bear all the burden and we do not expect government to bear all the burden. But that it is a partnership. It is a joint venture.

And when you talk about bandwidth and broadband, are you talking about in schools, particularly? What do you think about programs to help students on lunch assistance programs to get broadband at home?

Well, let’s start with schools. Because if you come from a family that has no ability to access these technologies, your child is more likely, then, to have access at school.

Really shifting gears here, I have two more, off-topic questions. One is to ask you about what you think about Google Glass, as sort of the original man with the wearable tech, what do you see as the potential of wearable tech and Google Glass?

I’m a big fan of technology of all sorts. And I’ve been surprised at my own reaction to wearable tech, certainly where Glass is concerned. I was very excited about Google Glass, certainly very interested in it. And then when I encountered it for the first time, my first question was, “Well, are you recording me?”

So the issue of discernment and privacy comes up for me. And I just believe that we will need to do a much better job of being transparent, no pun intended, in how we interface with these technologies before they reach critical mass. I believe there’s just way too much skepticism still. And the first adopters are really taking the brunt for all of us in terms of being the first wave of those who are getting this first response that, certainly, surprised me. As much a fan as I am of technology, my first reaction was one of self-preservation.

Finally, what would you like to see come about in the future for "Star Trek," now that it's been rebooted?

I’d love for Gene’s hopeful vision of humanity’s outcome to return. I’d love to see some of the core values of "Trek," of "Star Trek," come into these new movies. That would be very cool for me; that would be the best of both worlds:terrific entertainment, wonderful action pictures with values that "Star Trek" is so famous for.  To make movies that are about something. Movies that cause us to examine ourselves, our motives and ambitions.

Just something that can keep us on track, you know what I mean? That’s what "Star Trek" is really all about. At least for me it is. It always has been.

Before I let you go is there anything else you want to add?

Yes. Finally, I would love to remind everybody that we have 20 days to go on the campaign. [Note: it’s now 16, as of publishing.] This is a way to put our money where our mouths are. Or our money where our hearts are. I know it works and so does everybody who’s made a contribution. Let’s get it done, y’all. Let’s get it done.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=business/technology, subsection=null}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: !!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=bg52e9xhqr, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, comments_period=14, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, includesorts=true, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, childrenitemsperpage=3, includeheader=true, includeverifiedcommenters=true, defaulttab=all, includerecommend=true, includereport=true, maxitemstop=2, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=7, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Business
Next Story
Hayley Tsukayama | June 16