Never underestimate the power of nostalgia: children’s television classic Reading Rainbow, fueled largely by massive amounts of millennials making five and ten dollar donations, is making a comeback. LeVar Burton’s Kickstarter, “Bring Reading Rainbow Back For Every Child, Everywhere” has already raised almost $3.5 million, far above and beyond its initial $1 million goal. His plan is to build upon the extraordinarily successful Reading Rainbow tablet app, RRKidz, making a new Reading Rainbow that would be accessible on all platforms and in classrooms.
Reading Rainbow was cancelled in 2009 after 26 years on the air. Renewing the show would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, money no one was willing to put up to maintain broadcast rights. At the time, John Grant, then head of content at WNED Buffalo, Reading Rainbow‘s home station, explained the decision both as a matter of money and a shift in priorities from “get kids to love to read” to “teach kids basic phonics and spelling.” The revival of the show in this new form, though, hasn’t been without its critics. If you’re going to give money to a literacy organization, is that money better spent on a national for-profit company, or on a non-profit closer to home? Will an app that’s only available to people with internet access really address the needs of people who need literacy programs the most? Was Reading Rainbow cancelled for a good reason and, if so, is it worth investing in all over again? I talked to LeVar Burton by phone about the Kickstarter controversy and whether Reading Rainbow can, and should, endure.
Tell me the origin story for this Kickstarter. Where is Reading Rainbow now, and where do you hope it can go?
Our seed funding got us to where we are. It enabled us to hire a team, develop a product, and release the Reading Rainbow app two years ago. So far we’ve proven that, like the television show, it is possible to use technology to stimulate a love of and foster a passion for reading. Kids are coming to the app are reading about 139,000 books a week. However, we’re only on two platforms: the Apple iPad – not even the iPhone – and the Kindle Fire. So in order to be effective, and that is our desire, we knew we wanted to expand our footprint toward universal access. And the web and classrooms were the natural place to begin that march toward access. Quite frankly, the traditional venture capital community, they’ve been slow to embrace this idea. And we just were tired of waiting for them to feel like we’d jumped through all of their hoops.
What hoops? What were their issues with your idea?
There were concerns on both sides. My concern was, they think they know everything, but they don’t really know how to educate kids.
And what were they worried about?
You name it: that we’d never done this before, that my business partner and I were novice entrepreneurs. They were concerned about the relevancy of the brand: is Reading Rainbow still relevant?
Were you confident about that? That people still remember and care about Reading Rainbow?
I get feedback every day of my life, in terms of the number of millennials who come up to me and GUSH about what an important part of their childhood Reading Rainbow played. So no, I wasn’t concerned. [But] it was a risk to take this platinum brand and ask for money. It could have gone horribly wrong. That’s why we made the campaign 35 days instead of 30. Giving it that extra time. We never dreamed we’d reach our goal in 11 hours. Overwhelmingly, we have over 75,000 backers. And overwhelmingly, it’s a $5, a $10 donation. I think the average donation is south of $45. That’s the average.
So the sense you get, from the in-person response and the type of donations you’ve received, that it’s young people who are making this happen?
It’s extraordinary that millennials have made this their campaign. They’re taking it over now. They’re making it clear that they believe in Reading Rainbow and that it’s important for succeeding generations to have it in their lives as well, and that’s huge. There’s a part of me that feels like I helped raise these people, and it makes me proud to see that they are so committed and altruistic. And that they’re responsible for making sure that there’s something good in the world.
As much as millennials have embraced your campaign, there’s also been some backlash to the Kickstarter. Do you want to comment on any of those negative reactions?
I would LOVE to.
What criticisms have you seen?
I actually haven’t read the Washington Post article because I didn’t want to get upset. I’m acutely aware of the issues that it brings up.
Okay, let’s run down the issues. Sounds like you can just take the lead on this one.
So number one, Reading Rainbow was not cancelled because it was not effective. Reading Rainbow was the most used television resource in our nation’s classroom. In 2009, it was [cancelled] due to No Child Left Behind. That government policy made a choice between teaching the rudiments of reading and fostering a love of reading. So the idea that I am trying to somehow revive a failed endeavor is bullshit. That’s right. I said it. Bullshit.
What are your thoughts on that issue? In a perfect world, we’d be able to financially support both efforts. How do you make the choice between teaching kids the basics of reading and instilling a love of reading?
How do you make that choice? I’m sure it was a tough choice. I’m sure the idea, the principle, the spirit of No Child Left Behind is great and noble. How you accomplish that makes all the difference in the world. We’re trying not to leave any kids behind, and our choice is to give it away when they can’t afford it. (Editor’s note: Even in 2009, there were critics who asked if the Department of Education’s failure to fund a working program was the real reason Reading Rainbow was cancelled. One headline asked, “Did Education Dept.’s Shift Help Kill PBS’s ‘Reading Rainbow’?” in, of all places, The Washington Post.)
How has that conversation changed since Reading Rainbow originally aired in the ‘80s and today? Are we asking the same questions about children and literacy?
The conversation back in the ‘80s was: is television the enemy of education? Now I had, a few years previously, had the experience of Roots. (Editor’s note: Burton played Kunta Kinte in the 1977 miniseries.) I saw this nation become transformed around the idea of slavery and its legacy of racism. So I knew fully well how powerful the medium can be when used effectively. So the idea of a summer show—and originally, it was designed to address the summer-loss phenomenon—[was that] it was no secret to us where America’s children were spending their time. That’s what the debate was all around: is television ruining our kids? We just went to the point of purchase, where kids were hanging out, and brought them back to the written word. And we’re doing the same thing now, using the prevailing technology of the day. Then it was TV, now it’s digital media. And we’re using that very important engagement factor to feed them something worthwhile.
So what do you think the priority needs to be: do we focus all our energy on ending illiteracy, or do we focus on fostering a love of reading in kids?
I wish I knew. What I do know is that a sustainable society needs both. You need to teach your children how to read, and you need for them to love to read. If you want free, independent thinkers, people who can discern for themselves, people who want to actively participate in a democracy, you want them literate. If you want to control people, if you want to feed them a pack of lies and dominate them, keep them ignorant. For me, literacy means freedom. For the individual and for society.
Tell me more about how the Kickstarter funding will be used.
Well, one of the things that this money is going to enable us to do is to really achieve universal access. That’s really important to us. The first million got us on the web and the ability to develop a product specifically for the classroom. We should be able to reach our stretch goal of five million [dollars]. We could be on all of the platforms. We can be on mobile, we can be on Android. The feedback I get every day is, “Are you coming to Android devices?” This gives us the ability to do that now. We can be on gaming consoles. We could be on the Xbox! And we can help more schools. Five million gives us the ability to give Reading Rainbow products away to 7500 classrooms that ordinarily can’t afford it.
I know that no one program could be expected to reach every single child in this country. But the plan that you’re describing, while wide-reaching, leaves out kids who arguably need reading programs the most. What about kids who don’t have cell phones, kids don’t who have gaming consoles? What do you say to their parents?
[They] send their kids to school!
You mentioned earlier that you’ll be putting Reading Rainbow in 7500 classrooms. Is average household income part of the criteria for choosing which classrooms will get free Reading Rainbow products?
I’m glad you asked. And the answer is: we haven’t figured that out yet, but we will. Because we’re committed to figuring it out. And believe me, we’re going to work with all the experts, from the Department of Education to associations of teachers. We will figure it out.
Most of the donations have been small. Has any high profile person or organization made a really big contribution?
We’ve been really overwhelmed by offers of help, offers of assistance. Some of the rewards involve either a picnic with LeVar or dinner with LeVar, or lunch with LeVar. And there is a very famous restaurant group that has stepped up and volunteered to host all of these meals, free of charge.
Can you publicly announce who that is?
I will out them here and now: the Patina Group. Oh, wow! Right? The Patina Group contacted us and said: hey, we’re in. We get what you’re doing, and we want to help.
Reading Rainbow is national, which means the reach can be tremendous, but could you make the case that it’s smarter, or more effective, to donate directly to your local community?
One of the things I love about what’s happened is that this campaign has become a news story and it has caused people to think about the issue of child literacy. So whether you donate to this campaign or one on a local level, it doesn’t matter to me. The best thing you can do is read with a child and help to foster that love. At the end of the day, if you don’t donate to this campaign, I’m not mad at you. I’m not! But if you agree that literacy in America is important, and that if we have a populace that loves to read and can educate itself because it can read, if you believe that that’s good for our country, then do something to promote that value. Because doing nothing is what got us to where we are today.
Who was the person who read with you when you were a kid? Was it a teacher, a parent?
My mother. Erma G. Christian. Not just did she read to us when I was growing up, my mother read in front of me, and that was a very important example. Because the stark reality is, we don’t emphasize enough how important reading is to ourselves as adults. And with the technology making it easier and easier and easier to access content, as a society, we’re reading less and less for pleasure. So it’s up to us to set the example for our kids.
One of the points raised in the Washington Post story is that Reading Rainbow is a for-profit company, and people with limited money to give to charity should allocate their funds toward non-profit organizations.
I’d just like to address momentarily the idea that “you’re not a non-profit company, you’re a for profit company.” Well, yes, we are. And the idea that Reading Rainbow was free when it was on television is really a mischaracterization of the way PBS works. There may have been no immediate costs to the consumer, but it wasn’t free. It was paid for by the government, and by viewers like you. So grab a Swatch, and find out what time it is!