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Reading Rainbow knows happily ever after

From CNET Magazine: Actor and entrepreneur LeVar Burton, host of the beloved "Reading Rainbow" TV show-turned-iPad app, is putting interactive books and video field trips on more devices than ever -- thanks to readers like you. It's quite a story.

"I have a responsibility to do what I can to bring more than just entertainment to the table," LeVar Burton says. The Web is "the most powerful tool invented in the history of civilization, so why not use it for the highest good for as many souls as possible?" James Martin/CNET News

LeVar Burton cried when his Kickstarter campaign for Reading Rainbow reached his $1 million goal in just 11 hours. He thanked his contributors in an emotional video, saying he was proud to have their help in "literally changing the world, one children's book at a time."

A year later, the actor -- known to many as Geordi LaForge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," to others as the longtime host of PBS' "Reading Rainbow" TV show  and to still others as Kunta Kinte from the famed television miniseries "Roots" -- is still emotional when talking about instilling a love of reading in kids.

"You do not have an opportunity to reach your highest level of potential unless you self-select as a reader," says Burton, 58, during an interview at Reading Rainbow's headquarters in Burbank, California. "You can literally go anywhere in the world in your imagination -- go anywhere, be anything. That's a valuable message."

Message received. The 35-day campaign that began in May 2014 has raised $6.4 million from nearly 106,000 backers. Burton and business partner Mark Wolfe, co-founders of RRKidz, are now making good on their promise to put more than 500 interactive books and over 150 video field trips on the Web. The site, launched in May, is called Skybrary. They're also offering the Reading Rainbow app, initially available on Apple's iPad, for other tablets, set-top boxes and game consoles.

Subscriptions range from $10 a month to $50 a year. As part of RRKidz' Kickstarter pledge, the service will be free to more than 10,000 classrooms.

Here's how the story goes. Started as a TV show hosted by Burton 30 years ago, "Reading Rainbow" won numerous awards before being canceled in 2006. He and Wolfe bought the rights to the show and, in 2012, released the iPad app. But tablets are a luxury only a small slice of the US population can afford. Kickstarter would help them reach a wider audience. The response was more than Burton imagined.

"I don't walk around in my life every day thinking about the impact I've had on a couple of generations of people. It's not top of mind for me. It is now. It is now because I recognize 106,000 people donated to our Kickstarter campaign," Burton says. "What that said to me was -- you made a difference in my life and I want Reading Rainbow to be there for succeeding generations. ... That's no small thing."

Reading Rainbow's curator in chief sat down with Connie Guglielmo, CNET News editor in chief, to talk about venture capitalists, his mom's advice when planning his Kickstarter rewards and why Google Glass makes him nervous.

You've said you opted for crowdfunding because Silicon Valley venture capital firms wouldn't fund a Hollywood-based content company. Isn't content king?
"Content is king" is the rule of the day down south. Up north, it's the technology that's king.

Ultimately, Silicon Valley saw us as a content company and they were deathly afraid. ... They were afraid of the old story. But Mark and I knew we were creating two kinds of content: digital books and video field trips. They were the hallmarks of "Reading Rainbow" when it was a television series, and we knew, with over 60 combined years in show business, that we could produce high-quality video content that didn't cost a lot of money.

No one got that. No one believed us when we said that. So we decided that yes, they know a lot up there, but they don't know everything. We, at the end of the day, were really more willing to bet on ourselves than we were to wait for that blessing.

On the video showing the moment your Kickstarter hit $1 million, you looked shocked. Why?
I can't even begin to tell you how surprising that was. It was unexpectedly emotional as well because look, it could have gone horribly wrong. I had huge fears about the crowd-funding move. I was just not sure it was the right thing to do. However at the time it seemed like the only thing to do, so we did it. We took the leap into the void and to have had that sort of response on the first day was really amazing.

You made the Kickstarter rewards very personal -- offering to record voice mails, chat with backers via Skype, have dinner with them and even have them meet your "Star Trek" co-stars. Why?
My mom is famous about saying, "Don't write any checks with your mouth that your ass can't cash." These were checks that I knew I could cash. It made sense to invest myself personally in the reward structure, and I think that it worked.

Now playing: Watch this: Take a look: LeVar Burton takes us behind the scenes...

Critics say tablets and computers may take kids away from reading, just like they said TV was the wrong medium for promoting books. What do you say?
My response is the same as it was in the '80s, which is all media is educational. The question is, what are we teaching?

I have a responsibility to do what I can to bring more than just entertainment to the table. That's my philosophy. We have an opportunity with this incredibly powerful medium to really educate, to enlighten, to do more than just pass the time. It's the most powerful tool invented in the history of civilization, so why not use it for the highest good for as many souls as possible?

I get that there is a tendency to think that it's the death knell of education in the case of television, or it's the death knell of the family structure or interpersonal communication where modern technology is concerned. I just believe we just have some sort of discernment in terms of how we consume these products and we must have some sort of consciousness when feeding these products to our children. So yes, it's all educational. I want to make sure there is a choice out there for children and for their parents that is good for kids because there's plenty of opportunities to play games.

One of the things I'm most proud of with the reincarnation of Reading Rainbow was that we have kids coming to the app reading 194,000 books a week. That's huge because what it says to me is that we can get kids to come to this engaging technology to read, not just play games. They're coming to read. They're coming to watch video field trips. That's a game changer, literally, as far as I'm concerned.

Why were you nervous about Kickstarter then?
I was nervous about the Kickstarter because I'm human. I just didn't know. Look, I don't walk around in my life everyday thinking about the impact I've had on a couple of generations of people. It's not top of mind for me. It is now. It is now because I recognize 106,000 people donated to our Kickstarter campaign.

What that said to me was -- you made a difference in my life and I want Reading Rainbow to be there for succeeding generations, for kids that I don't even know and will never meet, and especially for my children.

That's no small thing.

In your videos, you read off an iPad. Why not from paper?
I do believe that sooner or later, hopefully sooner rather than later, we will come to the conclusion in this culture, on this planet, that it is unsustainable to make books out of trees.

Having said that, I love books. I love that experience of opening a book: I love the smell, I love the tactile, I love everything about it. Going forward, we're just going to have to start consuming what we read in the digital realm. Here's the positive byproduct of that: Those books that we do have, those books that are already printed, we will treasure them more. They will not sit in boxes, in garages, collecting dust and turning brittle. We will read them. We will share them from generation to generation.

Digital books represent more than just paper to you. You've said it's about access.
I travel all the time. I'm on a plane almost every week. I carry a library with me on my tablet. Do you know how much of a miracle that is to me? I come from a people for whom reading was punishable by whipping or death just three generations ago. You feel me? And I am able to travel every week with any book I choose at my disposal and I live in a world where that's possible. That's a miracle as far as I'm concerned.

And so to be able to have that luxury, and I really do consider it a luxury -- [that] access. I guess why this work is so important to me is because I don't want it to need to be a luxury. I believe that if you can read in at least one language, then you are my definition of free. Because no one can oppress you with their own ideas about what the world looks like and how the world should operate. You can educate yourself. And so it is the birthright, I believe, of every human being to be literate in at least one language.

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Unless we train our population of children to self-select to be readers, at that very important juncture where they're making the decision as to whether they're going to be a reader or not, we're lost.

You credit your mom with your love of reading. What's the story?
My memories around reading were seeing my mother read, and that was huge because in that very simple and constant act, my mother communicated to me just how important that written word was in our lives.

We took two newspapers when I was a kid, a morning and an evening, no matter where we lived -- and we moved around a lot. I was an Army brat. Every time we moved, it was like utilities, telephone, newspaper. Those were the essentials, like groceries. I know we couldn't afford the two sets of encyclopedias we had but my mother made sure we had two sets of encyclopedias in our home. It was a value that was highly, highly promoted in her house and it is carried through successive generations.

Education is fundamental and you do not have an opportunity to reach your highest level of potential unless you self-select as a reader.

"Star Trek" anticipated some of the tech we're seeing today, including the smart eyewear you wore as Geordi. What do you think of that?
"Star Trek" is really famous for that. The Bluetooth earpiece -- that's Lt. Uhura's communications device. The flip cell phone -- that's the communicator. The iPad -- we carried pads around on the Enterprise-D. I'm pretty sure Steve Jobs was a "Star Trek" fan. The parallels are there. And Geordi's visor -- absolutely.

Here's the thing: The connection that we focus our imagination on and that which we actually create in the third dimension, they're inextricable. One flows from the other. That's why I love science fiction literature so much.

Science fiction literature to me poses two of the most powerful words in combination in language -- what if. And that's where it begins: what if. You are invited to speculate in your imagination. We're the only creature in creation that does that, that can actually imagine a space or time that is not right now. It is our superpower. It is what makes human beings uniquely human -- the ability to engage our imagination around problems, issues. It is how we function in this world. And books are the trigger. By picking up a book, you engage your imagination and you really begin to exercise that imagination muscle.

You've said your life has been a circle around books. "Roots" brought you to national attention because of an amazing book that was turned into one of the very first popular TV miniseries. Now books have put you again in the public eye and last year you wrote your own children's book, "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm." I'm a big "Star Trek" fan so I'm not going to dismiss Geordi La Forge and your visor.
["Star Trek" creator] Gene Roddenberry was a writer. All of those episodes of "Star Trek" began first in the imagination and then they had to get down on the page. So the written word really is a recurring theme in my life, absolutely.

You've described yourself as a techie who likes to buy the latest gadgets, and you say wearables are inevitable. Even so, you say you have "some trepidation" about Google Glass.
I'm skeptical. My initial reaction to anybody when I see them wearing Glasses, are they recording? As much as I love that technology, I've noticed that sort of, "Wait a minute." I think it's a matter of education. It's going to take us some time.