What happens when you tap into the nostalgia surrounding not one, but two, beloved television franchises? LeVar Burton is about to find out.
For 26 years host Burton encouraged kids to embark on reading adventures on the PBS show Reading Rainbow. After the show went off the air in 2009, Burton acquired the rights to the brand and its library.
Now, Burton is looking to give Reading Rainbow a new life online, and he's looking for help in an unlikely place: He's hoping Star Trek geeks will chip in for an interactive Reading Rainbow website. He's offering top funders of his Kickstarter campaign the chance to wear the VISOR — the shiny band across his eyes that helped his character, Geordi LaForge, see in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
"We can bring Reading Rainbow back for every child, everywhere," he explains in a Kickstarter video. "We're creating an unlimited library of books and video field trips for today's digitally connected kids, delivered through browsers right into schools and homes everywhere."
He talks with NPR's Melissa Block about how he hopes to reach the next generation of young Rainbow readers.
On why he signed on as Reading Rainbow host in 1983
It stood out to me as a great use of the medium of television. I had just had my life changed and watched America change with the nightly broadcast of Roots and I thought, this makes good sense. To use this incredibly powerful medium to really do some good where kids were — which at that time in the early '80s was the television set. So the idea was to go to where they were and grab them there and then take them back in the direction of literature and the written word. I just thought it was a brilliant, brilliant idea.
On the way focus shifted from the love of reading to the mechanics of reading, and how that factored into the show's going off the air
Personally it was painful. ... Reading Rainbow is not about the rudiments or the fundamentals of reading. It's about the passion. It's about learning how to love the written word and developing a personal relationship with literature and having that be a part of your life, for the whole of your life.
On creating an interactive website when Reading Rainbow already has apps for iPads and other devices
The thinking here is ... universal access. About 33 percent of the population has access to an iPad whereas 97 percent of families are Web accessible, so we want to put it in the hands of families where it can really, really, do some good. In addition, we know that schools want Reading Rainbow. We intend to give it away to schools in need ... schools that can't afford the licensing fee. I intend to give it away to those schools.
On the difference between reading online versus reading on the page
I don't believe it's the same experience but I do believe it is as valuable. It is a different experience; ... tactilely it's not the same.
I carry a library around on my tablet and I love the idea that I can carry a library around on my tablet. There are huge advantages.
On the Star Trek VISOR, which he is letting top donors try on
There is one that I wore [on the show] and that is the one that I have. It lives in the box in which it was brought to me by the prop man Charlie Russo every day on the set of Next Gen and when it was suggested that this might be a nice giveback for people who pledge, I thought it was kind of cool.
On whether he ever wears the VISOR around by himself
Once in a great while I have occasion to. It definitely takes me back. ... Once in a while. Because I can.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
That story is part of a reporting partnership of NPR and Kaiser Health News. >>BLOCK: To fans of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," LeVar Burton is Geordi La Forge.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION")
LEVAR BURTON: (As Geordi La Forge) I materialized upside down above the planet's surface.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The character is blind, but he's able to see by wearing a shiny band across his eyes called a VISOR, for Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement. Before "Star Trek," LeVar Burton was Kunta Kinte in the TV miniseries "Roots." Levar Burton is also known to millions of kids and grown-ups as the host of the children's show on public television "Reading Rainbow."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "READING RAINBOW")
BURTON: Here are some other books that you might like. But you don't have to take my word for it.
BLOCK: The PBS series that encouraged kids to take adventures through reading went off the air in 2009, after a 26-year run. Burton later acquired the rights to the brand and its library, and now he's hoping that "Star Trek" geeks will help pay for an interactive "Reading Rainbow" website. He's offering top funders of a Kickstarter campaign the chance to wear the VISOR.
LeVar Burton joins me to talk about how the experience of reading is changing for children and what he's hoping to achieve. Mr. Burton, welcome to the program.
BURTON: It's a pleasure.
BLOCK: And let's go back to the beginning when "Reading Rainbow" started back in 1983. What appealed to you about it? Why did you decide to sign on as host?
BURTON: It stood out to me as a great use of the medium of television. I had just had my life changed and watched America change with the nightly broadcast of "Roots." And I thought, this makes good sense, to use this incredibly powerful medium to really do some good where kids were, which at that time, in the early '80s, it was the television set.
BLOCK: Well, when "Reading Rainbow" ended, one of the reasons that was given was that there was a shift toward really drilling down on the mechanics of reading - things like phonics and spelling. And "Reading Rainbow" went in a different direction, right? It was really more about the adventure of reading and where it could take you. What did you make of that - of that decision and that shift?
BURTON: Well, personally, it was very - it was painful. It was sad. And it's true, "Reading Rainbow" is not about the rudiments or the fundamentals of reading. It's about the passion. It's about learning how to love the written word and developing a personal relationship with literature and having that be a part of your life for the whole of your life.
BLOCK: There's always this discussion - right? - about whether reading on tablets or online is the same experience, is as valuable as reading an actual, physical book. I assume you've decided that, sure, it is.
BURTON: Yeah. I don't believe it's the same experience, but I do believe it is as valuable. I carry a library around on my tablet. And I love the idea that I can carry a library around on my tablet. So there are huge advantages.
BLOCK: So I was looking through your Kickstarter page and came on the Geordi's VISOR package at the very end. If you give $10,000 - the donor would get a private dinner with you and the chance to wear the one-and-only original "Star Trek: The Next Generation" VISOR. So I gather you got to keep the VISOR.
BURTON: There was one that I wore, and that's the one that I have. And it lives in the box in which it was brought to me by the prop man, Charlie Russo, every day on the set of Next Gen.
BLOCK: You think you'll have some takers?
BURTON: We will.
BLOCK: You know they're out there.
BURTON: I'm pretty certain that they are.
BLOCK: Do you ever take that VISOR out and just kind of put it on for old time's sake?
BLOCK: Come on, confess.
BURTON: OK. Once in a great while, I have occasion to. It definitely takes me back.
BLOCK: Still rocking the VISOR.
BURTON: Once in a while. Once in a while because I can.
BLOCK: Well, LeVar Burton, it's been great to talk you. Thank you so much.
BURTON: Thank you.
BLOCK: LeVar Burton is the cofounder and curator-in-chief of RR Kidz. That's the company behind the latest chapter for "Reading Rainbow."
And since we spoke with LeVar Burton earlier today, the Kickstarter campaign is already more than halfway to its $1 million goal.
SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.