There are a ton of podcasts out there, but finding the right one can be difficult. In our new column Pod Hunters, we cover what we’ve been listening to that we can’t stop thinking about.
LeVar Burton made his name as an actor on shows like Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but many remember him best as the host of PBS’s Reading Rainbow, where he spent 21 seasons recommending books to children. After the show ended, he launched an iPad app and later a Kickstarter (which became one of the most popular campaigns in the company’s history) to bring his literary recommendations into the 21st century. Burton has since parted ways with the studio behind Reading Rainbow, but his commitment to literature and literacy continues with his own company, LeVar Burton Kids. Here he runs his Skybrary children’s reading app, as well as a podcast devoted to short fiction, LeVar Burton Reads.
Burton opens each episode of his podcast with a simple guiding principal: “The only thing that these stories have in common is that I love them, and I hope you will, too.” Each episode is a single story, narrated by Burton, which runs just under an hour in length. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, he’s narrated some fantastic stories, such as Ken Liu’s heartbreaking fantasy The Paper Menagerie, Amal El-Mohtar’s The Truth About Owls, and Elmore Leonard’s No Man’s Guns. Burton is the epitome of podcast narrator, armed with a fantastic voice that allows you to sink into a story and not emerge until it’s finished.
Burton told The Verge that over the last couple of years, he has turned his work and advocacy away from Reading Rainbow and toward a business and brand that he could control. “LeVar Burton Kids is my present and future concern,” he says. “Walking away from the Reading Rainbow brand gives me the opportunity to tell stories to my audience beyond simply the franchise of reading and literacy.” This sense of editorial control will allow him to focus on the social justice aspects of his various television roles, from Roots to Star Trek, as well as STEM topics.
Burton says that his podcast is a way for him to share stories that he finds personally interesting, and one he thinks will resonate with his audience. He singled out one episode in which he reads Liu’s Paper Menagerie. The story is about a mixed-race boy who struggles with his Chinese and American heritage. Burton says that this particular story demonstrates the power that storytelling holds, and that it’s “possible for any of us to learn and grow through sharing a story.”
For the podcast’s first season, he and one of his producers, Julia Smith, identified a series of stories that they found appealing. “I began with science fiction because that’s my favorite genre, but I wanted selections to be from diverse genres of literature, because the whole point was to be able to engage in my favorite dynamic of storytelling: reading aloud.” The podcast began its second season in January, and also drew on recommendations from its audience; throughout Spring 2018, he’s taking the show on tour.
Burton says that podcasting is an ideal medium for encouraging reading and literacy, in part because of its accessibility and convenience — allowing people to listen when it’s best for them. “We all want to customize our content experience, in a way that works for us, and podcasting fits right into that.” Burton also notes that podcasting helps enhance the stories he selects: “What audio storytelling does is it engages the listener in a way that visual storytelling does not. You are creating the visuals for yourself, and because of that additional level of personal investment, it’s enjoyable on a different level.”