Rolling Stones Rocker Turns Eco Entrepreneur
Chuck Leavell has lived the ultimate rock 'n' roll fantasy, but he's so modest that he doesn't always own up to it. At a recent lunch, a new acquaintance had to bombard him with questions to gauge Leavell's prowess on the keyboard.
"You play around here?" the man asked.
"I play all over," Leavell said.
"You got a band? Or you perform by yourself?"
Leavell's friend Joel Babbit, who witnessed the interrogation, chuckles at the memory. "You had to squeeze it out of him," Babbit says. Finally Leavell conceded that he belonged to a band--and a pretty good one.
"The Rolling Stones."
Fortunately, the white-bearded, 58-year-old Leavell is far more forthcoming about his latest endeavor outside of music: He's co-founder of the Mother Nature Network, which has rapidly become one of the internet's busiest science and environmental websites, based on site statistics from Alexa, the Amazon-owned company that tracks web traffic. The site, launched by Leavell and Babbit as a for-profit business in January 2009, reached 20 million page views in May alone, according to spokesman Dan Beeson.
"It's nothing short of a dream come true; it really is," says Leavell, an original member of the Allman Brothers Band who has released four solo albums, besides playing alongside such icons as Eric Clapton, Lee Ann Womack and George Harrison.
Sticks and Stones
Though best known for his stirring keyboard numbers--among them "Already Over Me" on the Stones' Bridges to Babylon album and "Old Love" on Clapton's Unplugged CD--Leavell also has earned impressive credentials over the years for his environmental work.
Leavell has lectured around the country on forestry and sustainability issues and was twice honored as "Tree Farmer of the Year" in his home state of Georgia, where he and his wife, Rose Lane, live on a 2,500-acre pine and hardwood plantation outside of Macon. In addition, he has published two books, Forever Green: The History and Hope of the American Forest, and a children's volume, The Tree Farmer, aimed at getting young people interested in ecology.
The website has proven to be the best way yet to spread awareness of the many environmental problems facing the planet, as well as possible solutions that need to be explored, Leavell says. "This is that chance in a million," he says. "To reach so many people, and to do it in this way, through modern technology, is extremely gratifying."
The Birth of Mother Nature Network
Mother Nature Network is modeled, in part, after the popular medical website WebMD, which succeeds in providing a wide array of information in a clear way to vast numbers of people. Babbit, a 56-year-old former advertising and public relations executive, noticed the need for a similar environmental portal several years ago while handling an account for Dell Inc., the Texas-based computer company.
Like so many Fortune 500 firms, Dell was eager to promote itself as a "green," environmentally conscious corporation, says Babbit, who turned to the internet to educate himself. He figured that by searching the web for "green technology," "energy efficiency," "carbon footprints" and other relevant terms, he could learn enough to talk intelligently with Dell officials.
"I saw what I thought was a huge void," Babbit recalls. It wasn't, as Woody Allen would say, an empty void; a Google search of "environmental issues" turns up more than 31 million hits, including such well-established portals as Greenpeace.org and Treehugger.com. But in analyzing what was available, Babbit found that many websites were far more technical than he wanted, filled with numbers and insider information aimed primarily at hard-core environmentalists.
Some sites, such as AlGore.com, created by the former U.S. vice president and Nobel laureate, focus on a single cause--in Gore's case, global warming. The Sierra Club's website, though far broader, is heavily weighted toward outdoor issues and proselytizes for memberships and donations.
Government websites--such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency's--tended to be more objective, but those were among the most difficult to navigate and understand, Babbit says.
"I realized there must be tens of millions of people like me, who were not advocates but mainstream consumers" who wanted basic, reliable information on environmental topics, he says. Babbit invited Leavell to his office in Atlanta and pitched the website idea.
The two men had met five years earlier through mutual friends. "Chuck was the most educated person I knew on environmental issues," says Babbit, who now serves as the website's CEO. "I walked him through what I was thinking about and asked if he was interested in starting this. Thank God he said yes."
"Joel turned to me and said, 'Do you want to build it?'" Leavell remembers. "I just lit up like a Christmas tree."
Babbit's corporate connections made fundraising easy. "Within 48 hours, we had commitments of up to $10 million, which is just phenomenal," Leavell says. "These guys all said, 'Wow, what a great idea. Nobody's doing this.'"
Rather than clutter the site with ads and annoying pop-ups, Babbit conceived an innovative business model. A limited number of major sponsors would buy a year-long presence on the site for $300,000 apiece. After signing up AT&T, Georgia Pacific, Coca-Cola, Best Buy and others, the site became profitable by its first birthday in January, Babbit says.
Leavell, who serves as director of environmental affairs, focuses on the site's content, aided by an Atlanta-based staff of about 20 journalists.
The Mother Nature Network is deliberately broad in its reach, Leavell says. There are news reports and photos of timely events--the Gulf oil spill, tornadoes, earthquakes--as well as tips and information on everything from organic farming to child rearing. Home and family are emphasized. The site also features contests, blogs and question-and-answer forums. A headline from Australia declares, "Man Punches Shark, Swims to Safety." Unemployment rates are tracked on a page that lists green job openings. Organic cosmetics and beauty tips are featured. The sky is the limit: A posting about space news answers a longstanding mystery about the Martian ice cap.
Leavell hosts a regular video segment, "In the Green Room," in which he interviews celebrities. Willie Nelson talks about bio-diesel and the need for a new farm bill. Singer Bryan Adams discusses the deforestation of his native Canada. Sportscaster Greg Gumbel explains "how the NFL is going green."
At least one ostensible rival, the Sierra Club, sees value in having another strong player on the side of informing the public, says Bob Sipchen, communications director for the worldwide conservation group. "It's a good-looking website," Sipchen says. "It's healthy competition to have as many sites as possible focusing on this issue we all face, which is how to keep the planet healthy in the face of climate disruption and other environmental threats."
Leavell is overjoyed with the Mother Nature Network's rapid growth. "We thought it would take five years to get where we are now," he says.
Jack of All Trades
His two daughters--Amy, 34, and Ashley, 27--are grown now, but Leavell stays exceptionally busy, dividing his time between the website and rock 'n' roll. He can discourse as easily about deforestation as he can about chords and lyrics and laments the destruction caused by pests like the emerald ash borer and the black-gum turpentine beetle.
"When you look at the southeast, from Virginia down through east Texas, we're losing one million acres of forests a year through growth and development," he says. "That's the subject of my next book, Growing America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable."
Despite the formidable demands of his environmental work, Leavell still considers himself an active member of the Rolling Stones, a group he first joined in 1981. He has been spending time with his old band mates lately, thanks to the re-release of the album Exile On Main Street. This spring, Leavell took Babbit with him to New York for the premiere of the documentary film Stones in Exile, where they hung out with a few music legends.
Babbit was duly impressed, mainly with Leavell's levelheadedness about it all. "He treats our interns and assistants here the same as he treats Mick Jagger and Keith Richards," Babbit says.
Oceans expert Alexandra Cousteau, a Mother Nature Network board member and granddaughter of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, met Leavell for the first time in New York, at a party on Earth Day. She vividly remembers, "We had an immediate connection as kindred spirits who care about the environment. In spite of his enormous talent and accomplishments, he's very easy to talk to. He's very approachable.
"Then," she says, "he played the piano for us and just blew everybody away."