Jun 6 2014, 2:24pm CDT | by Forbes
When Reading Rainbow launched its effort to raise $1 million on Kickstarter a week ago, they gave themselves a 35 day deadline, rather than the usual 30 days that a Kickstarter effort has. The reason why, LeVar Burton told me, is because they wanted an extra five days to ensure they met their goal.
Suffice to say, he and his company, RRKidz, were more than a little surprised to see Reading Rainbow meet its one million dollar goal in less than 12 hours.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen.”
Burton started the Kickstarter project in the hopes of bringing the Reading Rainbow app, currently only available on the iPad and Kindle Fire, to the web as whole. With the million dollar goal met, the company now has a goal of raising $5 million. With the additional money, the company aims to get not only on the web, but also to Android, game consoles, smartphones, and other streaming devices.
I asked Burton why he chose to focus on expanding the app, rather than trying to bring Reading Rainbow back to television, YouTube, or other platform as a show.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “When we launched Reading Rainbow, TV was the prevailing tech of the day to reach kids. What we’re doing now is the same thing we’ve been doing for over 30 years, but our focus isn’t on TV now because TV’s not the focus of today’s kids. Kids today use TV as just one screen, so if you want to reach them you have to be on all of them.”
That said, he doesn’t entirely rule out a return to a Reading Rainbow TV show.
“I’m not saying we won’t go back to TV, but it’s not our first thought, and it’s not our primary interest. Our intention is to be effective and have an impact.”
Which is why, too, a part of the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter is to be able to provide free access to the subscription-based app to 7,500 disadvantaged classrooms.
“Giving it away is really important. Teachers are already reaching into their own pockets to give it to their classes now, and we want a version of product they can use in their daily curriculum.
“In a society that functions optimally, those who can should naturally want to provide for those who can’t. That’s how it’s designed to work. I truly believe we’re here to take care of one another.”
The initial Kickstarter goal was to provide free access to Reading Rainbow to 1,500 classrooms. So identifying the additional 6,000 classrooms will, Burton acknowledges, will be challenging. The company is working with the Department of Education and teacher’s associations in order to provide the best impact.
“We haven’t figured it all out yet,” said Burton. “But it’s a great problem to have. We will figure it out because we are determined to do what we can to make a difference.”
The overall response to the Kickstarter campaign has been, to put it mildly, enthusiastic. The campaign has raised over three and a half million dollars and still has 26 days to go. There have been gestures of support on blogs, Twitter, and many other places. (My personal favorite being Mallory Ortberg’s bluntly titled (and hilarious) “LeVar Burton Deserves Our Money More Than We Do“.)
Burton himself expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support. Especially after a fruitless 18 month crusade to raise the money to expand the platform reach of his app. The company initially raised seed money from the Kauffman Foundation and Raymond Capital, but didn’t have much luck raising money this time around.
“Quite frankly,” he said. “The traditional VC community has not responded well to this educational venture. I respect the VC community a lot, but it doesn’t know everything.”/>/>
As with all success, though, the Kickstarter project has also attracted some criticism. For example, at Buzzfeed, staff reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy expressed criticism that RRKidz operates as a for-profit company and complained that the Kickstarter doesn’t mention the subscription fees paid to use the service.
Burton addressed this head on, “Had you read the page, you’d know exactly what we were trying to accomplish. Criticize if you want, but we’re trying to fill a gap that’s been made by the way the company has failed to educate children. We’re asking people to help us get it done.”
He continued: “The hundreds of books we offer with our service? We have to pay to license those! The video we produce is produced at a reasonable cost, but you can’t produce it for nothing. I feel like we’re offering some of the finest content in the English language. A subscription is five dollars a month. You can spend five dollars on a single digital book.”
Another prominent criticism came from Caitlin Dewey at The Washington Post, who stated that “you might want to reconsider that donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter” because it doesn’t actually teach kids to read.
“No, Reading Rainbow doesn’t teach kids to read,” said Burton. “It never has. It’s always been about something equally important, which is the love of reading. The two go hand in hand. No Child Left Behind decided there was a choice between teaching to read and fostering a love of reading. We have suffered mightily because of that. We need Reading Rainbow now more than ever, and obviously I’m not alone in that belief.”
For Burton, the love of reading is tied to the very essence of what makes us human. “Storytelling,” he said. “is an elemental part of the human experience.”
And for all the work he’s on behalf of Reading Rainbow, he still takes time out to read. Especially now that we can read on tablets and Kindles. “Tablets let me take a whole library around with me!”
“Right now, I’m reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch,” he said. “and loving it.”
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