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For those of us who grew up watching Reading Rainbow, Levar Burton’s new podcast LeVar Burton Reads is intoxicatingly nostalgic. Instead of children’s picture books, Burton narrates short fiction by authors like Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami, complete with his buttery voice, where his words still cling to you like a trusty old blanket.
But Burton hasn’t forgotten about budding bookworms. His new company, “Levar Burton Kids,” sprung from a hugely successful Kickstarter launched in 2014 under the Reading Rainbow name. That crowdfunding campaign raised an incredible $5 million, with the help of over 100,000 donaters. He split with the brand in 2017, but continues to build out the “Skybrary,” an app that gives families access to hundreds of children’s e-books for $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year, on his own.
Even with his DIY mentality, Burton doesn’t enjoy asking people for money. Here’s why.
I’ve been listening to your podcast, and it’s crazy how comforting it is to hear your voice again. Is that creepy? People must tell you that all the time.
I’m so happy to hear you say that. That generations of adults who grew up on Reading Rainbow find just the sound of my voice a comfort is very cool for me. Especially in the times we live in.
Is that why you started this podcast? For our sake?
I’ve thought about it for a long, long time. My wife has been encouraging me to do something like this for years. And finally the popularity of podcasting, the low barrier to entry, and my desire to do something creative that was simply for me all came together. Short fiction is a genre of literature I’ve always loved.
Last November, you and your business partner pitched your growth plan at the WeWork Creator awards in New York, and walked away with an $180,000 grant. Did you know you had that in the bag?
No, the other 10 finalists in our category, were all very strong companies, some I had heard of, like Biolite, some I had never heard of. I didn’t assume anything, and we were thrilled to be one of the money winning teams.
What are you going to use the money for?
It’s going to help us retool our product so that we can reach more kids. It will help us make tweaks to the product, make us more accessible, help penetrate the school market, help diversify our product into the Spanish language, and forge partnerships in foreign markets. The problem we’re trying to solve is childhood illiteracy. It’s a big, big, big mission. But we’re going to try.
You’ve had a very successful career for a very long time. Was money ever tight?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Early in your career?
Early in my career, in the middle of my career, at the present time in my career. Look, when you’re the founder of a startup, money is always an issue, whether it’s your money, money you’ve raised, or money people have invested in you.
You don’t like asking people for money?
Oh that’s the worst. There are few things more painful than asking friends for favors, or asking strangers for money.
But people seem to want to give it to you. Are you a natural entrepreneur?
It does not come easily to me, no. I’m an artist by personality, I’m not a businessman. It’s a part of me I’ve really had to cultivate. But I have the good sense to surround myself with people who complement my strengths.
As publishers shift their focus to ebooks, what does that mean for kids whose families can’t afford a tablet? Or a personal computer? Is that something you think about?
I think about this all the time. Look, television was the technology that we used in the ’80s to reach kids. If you want to reach kids today, you need your content to be on the devices they want to be on. But you can’t have content in the digital space without being aware of the digital divide. I’m always thinking about how can we reach more children.
And books shouldn’t be a luxury item …
LB: No. they should not. They absolutely should not. I believe it’s part of the human birthright, literacy.
The new season of LeVar Burton Reads podcast is out now.