When YouTube announced in January its plans to launch YouTube Original Channels, news of big-name content producing partners started to roll in. Rainn Wilson and Stan Lee would have channels, as would Shaquille O’Neill and Felicia Day. And filmmakers Jon Avnet (Black Swan) and Rodrigo Garcia (Albert Nobbs) would pair up to create WIGS, a channel featuring shows about the lives of women starring celebs such as Julia Stiles, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Garner.
Given the star-studded nature of the $200 million effort, it might seem surprising that when production company @radical.media responded to YouTube’s call for content partners, it immediately called dibs on an education channel. For a company known for its award-winning documentaries (Fog of War, Paradise Lost), celeb-driven series Iconoclasts and Oprah’s Master Class, and bleeding-edge interactive videos like "Wilderness Downtown" and Rome 3 Dreams of Black, to say nothing of its world-renown commercials, focusing on education with its THNKR channel didn’t seem like the expected play.
But that was the point, according to @radical.media President of Media & Entertainment Justin Wilkes. "Strategically, we thought this would be a great opportunity as this would be the most underserved topic," he says. "The one space we’ve always had a passion for but feel like no one’s really cracked is knowledge. I won’t say education because it has a negative connotation, but smart content that stimulates conversation. So for us as a company we said, how can we best use our skill sets as content producers and storytellers, and if we’re going to go after this particular channel, what can we do differently?"
The education vs. knowledge distinction is an important one, as it allowed @radical to shift the filter for programming ideas from straight-up educational content to information-rich stories. That process resulted in four distinct shows on the newly launched channel that focus on provocative and inspiring people, stories and ideas: Prodigies, which focuses on the brightest and most talented phenoms; Bookd, a series which discusses thought-provoking non-fiction books; Epiphany, a daily show featuring interviews with thought leaders; and Podium, a series that embraces and dissects the art of public speaking.
"What began as the most boring, dry assignment in the world—the YouTube education channel—has become this great opportunity to tell really inspiring stories, to get people thinking and provoke conversation," says Wilkes.
With YouTube’s foray’s into "professionally" programmed channels—which offer more of a lean-back experience than is the norm on the site—Wilkes says the goal was to play to the medium’s strength by creating sharable bits of content as opposed to importing the passive 22-minute model of television into an online channel.
"We looked at what this platform offers versus traditional television or websites and reversed engineered it. We think the platform is so much more exciting when you can utilize it in the way that people are genuinely consuming media," he says, noting the guiding principles are to create "disruptive, bite-sized morsels of inspiration that can get pushed out there, stimulate conversation and get people excited. I think eventually as people adapt to the language of going to YouTube for original content, that’s going to encourage viewer behavior."
THNKR boasts over 30 hours of content that will be rolled out over 300 episodes throughout the next year, released either daily or weekly, depending on the show. First episodes include leading thinkers like futurist/filmmaker Jason Silva, roundtable book discussions (which include the authors) on Michael Pollan’s The Ominvore’s Dilemma and Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs biography, as well as the awe-inspiring story of 8-year-old college student Tanishq Abraham, all told with @radical’s storytelling flair. THNKR will additionally feature a carefully curated selection of third party work.
THNKR, says Wilkes, will deliberately feature a wide range of subjects, from the well-known to the more obscure. "We were really mining the subcultures of some of these categories," he says. "We’re going to be targeting some more unexpected people."
THNKR Supervising Producer/Director Danny Stolzman, who’s on the front line of finding compelling figures, says: "What we’re doing is classic reporting in many ways. We’re reaching out to scientists who are studying prodigy children, and those scientists are connecting us to the families and to schools that offer advanced learning programs."
While the chance to program an online channel is unique, particularly for a company that’s usually beholden to a brand or network, Wilkes says the truly intriguing part of THNKR for @radical is the future potential it represents. "For us this is the next major step in the media landscape. Think about if you were sitting in the late ’70s, early ’80s and you had four networks on the air and someone came to you and said ‘you can create your own channel, program your own content’ and that was to become what cable television became. We’re at that moment now, but on a much more accelerated scale because of how quickly the technology has evolved and how the media landscape has grown so significantly. Being a part of this as a pioneer, particularly as a company called @radical.media, we figured we better be involved or we’re going to get left behind."