Google is re-investing in its Original Channels on YouTube, so now is a great time for the project’s creators to see a bump in viewer engagement. THNKR, an entry from the @radical.media production team, recently saw such a bump thanks to a video featuring a teenage tech whiz from Sierra Leone. Tubefilter talked to THNKR Director Danny Stolzman about the channel’s recent successes and how it is making education accessible to the YouTube audience.

TF: How did THNKR get started? What is the mission behind the channel, and what about this mission did Google particularly enjoy when they decided to include THNKR in their Original Channels slate?

DS: When our company, @radical.media, first heard about the opportunity to create Google-funded education channels on YouTube, we saw it as an exciting challenge to upend conventional thinking on learning and offer an exciting new YouTube-tailored take on educational programming.  We pitched our channel to Google and were greenlit at the end of 2011. We immediately began developing our programming in earnest, and six months later we debuted to the world.

THNKR‘s mission is to expose viewers to the people, stories, and ideas that are transforming the world right now. We see our videos as nodes of conversation, where viewers consider and argue, agree and disagree. In regards to what our partners at Google liked about us, I can’t speak on their behalf, but I can say they have been incredible collaborators and we’ve found YouTube to be the perfect place for us to develop THNKR.

TF: We’ve seen several channels attempt to make education fun (including Hank Green‘s channels and the various NextUp EDU Gurus winners). How does THNKR differ from channels such as those?

DS: We love Hank Green! And we’re long time fans of TED, Vsauce, and others who’ve admittedly been in the education space on YouTube longer than us.  These creators blazed the path for smart, fun, and informative programming on YouTube.

Where we are unique is that as that our company, @radical.media, comes from a proud history of storytelling through other mediums as well – feature films, television series, music videos, commercials for example. It’s also a global studio that is known for its dedication to the craft and commitment to aesthetics, having created some of the most innovate content across all platforms, producing and distributing award-winning projects in a variety of media.  We’re taking that professional experience and trying to offer something unique, what we like to call “smart entertainment.” The resulting THNKR content creates an extremely immersive, story-driven experience that also starts a conversation about the people and ideas that are changing the world around us.

TF: At the same time, you guys have collaborated with a number of different channels. What collaborations have you done, and how have they made your content more appealing to your audience?

DS: We’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with a number of well-known channels, such as My Damn Channel, Geek and Sundry, and Vsauce.  We worked with Beth Hoyt from My Damn Channel for our BOOKD episode on Fifty Shades of Grey.  She gave a hilarious and insightful interview in the My Damn Channel studio, and we enjoyed working with her so much that we collaborated on a second video – The Ultimate 50 Shades of Grey Bookd Club.  For our Cloud Atlas episode of BOOKD, we wanted to work with Veronica and Tom from Sword & Laser, since we knew they were planning their own episode on the book.  We met Michael Stevens of Vsauce at a YouTube conference, and thought it would be great to bring him on EPIPHANY so we could discuss at length what goes into making a Vsauce episode, and how he got his start.

These partnerships are great for our collaborators because their fans get to see them in a new light, and great for us because they help introduce THNKR to a new audience.  The resulting collaborations also usually yield a fresh, interesting more convivial piece that feels very native to the spirit of YouTube.  Our Vsauce videos on EPIPHANY are a great example of that.  We were able to integrate some of Michael’s whimsical editing style into our format, creating content that was more dynamic and interesting but at the same time still maintained our distinct style and process.

TF: How would you break down the creation of each THNKR video? That is, how much do you weigh educational value, entertainment, production quality, fundraising goals, and any other factors when you’re producing videos?

DS: We have a rock-star team of extremely dedicated, curious people who are constantly looking for great stories and thought-provoking subject matter. Our office culture is very open and we encourage every employee to share their ideas – that’s where most videos begin. We don’t worry too much about educational vs. entertainment value – but we do think a lot about being current, and focus on bringing new, unexpected material to our audience. We also work very hard to deliver regular programming, ideally uploading a new video every day.  At the same time we take each and every video very seriously. Production value is important to us – we consider ourselves craftsmen in this medium, so it’s a matter of pride.  That adds up to a lot of late nights at the office.

TF: THNKR doesn’t hit the most popular YouTube categories (music, gaming, etc.) How does this pose a challenge for you guys?

DS: While it’s true that our channel as a whole doesn’t fit neatly into a popular Youtube category like music or gaming, we really don’t see that as a challenge. We have the freedom on individual episodes to cover current, provocative topics that our viewers want, but created in the THNKR style, which is story-driven, character-based with a smart point of view and aesthetic sensibility.

I’d also add that if you consider THNKR as a channel in the “knowledge” category, I would argue that we have considerable popular appeal.  The pursuit of knowledge is universal, and the web is completely upending the last century’s conventions about learning, education, and entertainment.  As a culture we’re seeing people around the world taking learning into their own hands, whether they are watching Kahn Academy videos, the latest TED talk, or any of our shows. At its essence, THNKR appeals to anyone who is curious, self-starting, and wants learn about their world.

TF: You’ve managed to see several videos go viral, particularly those in your ‘Prodigies‘ series. Why do you think these videos appeal to so many people?

I think PRODIGIES is just an extremely refreshing and unique show. It’s endlessly entertaining to see kids with extraordinary talent, and we’re finding that audiences are hungry for smart, inspiring content like this.  The great thing about making emotionally compelling, moving videos is that people are compelled to post it via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc., and then conventional news outlets pick up the story and it adds to the snowball effect. Ultimately it’s the collective impulse to share inspiring content that’s driving our explosive growth in views.

TF: What’s next? How do you hope to continue to push the envelope?

DS: THNKR is sitting at the convergence between traditional and new media. We want to use our high production value and storytelling experience to disrupt conventional paradigms of entertainment, media, and learning – we’ve got several new shows in development and we’re excited to use this space as a testing ground for cutting edge content. We are also partnering with likeminded institutions and will soon bring THNKR experiences offline to our growing community.

TF: With regard to the YouTube Original Channels, we recently learned that a select portion of the original 100 selections will receive additional funding. For channels such as Machinima Prime or Nerdist, securing additional support should be easy; they can point to their popularity with YouTube’s largest demographic as an easy indicator of their success. How is this process different for you guys? That is, how are you making it clear to Google that THNKR is a channel they must reinvest in?

DS: While our current view and subscriber numbers might not rival established networks like Machinima or Nerdist, THNKR is only six months old, so we’re thrilled with where we are right now.  We’re particularly excited about the level of engagement – comments, audience participation, etc – that our content receives.  The topics we raise on our shows garner incredible conversations across the globe. Our ambitions are big… we hope that one day soon our brand of “smart entertainment” will have us competing with the most popular YouTubers.  And thanks to the democracy of the platform, it’s up to us to reach that goal.

You can check out PRODIGIES and the other THNKR content on their channel.