TL; DR: Story Pirates, an arts education group based in NYC and LA, journeys into the imaginative minds of today’s youth and uses the treasures it finds as the basis of podcasts, music, and books featuring renowned actors and comedians. The group also encourages kids to flex their creative muscles through digital learning subscriptions like Creator Club. With all-new activities to build community and quell anxiety in increasingly isolated times, Story Pirates is working to foster a sense of artistry in the bloggers, website builders, and storytellers of tomorrow.
Many fear the advent of workplace automation will put human jobs at risk. But professionals should take heart that the technology is poised to change education models for the better.
While educators built 20th-century instruction primarily on uniformity and repetition, automation has cleared the way for learning focused on creativity and critical thinking — skills that humans uniquely bring to the table.
“I think that’s why people keep coming to us for the diverse array of programming that we put out into the world,” said Benjamin Salka, Co-Founder of the arts education group Story Pirates. “What we’re doing under the surface is preparing kids in a substantive way for the world that they’re growing up in.”
Founded in 2004, Story Pirates is a group of teachers, artists, authors, and comedians who take original stories written by real kids and adapt them into podcasts, videos, and books.
The company’s podcast features guest appearances from renowned artists — including Julie Andrews, Kristen Bell, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Bowen Yang, Claire Danes, and John Oliver — who bring the stories to life. Downloaded more than 35 million times, the Story Pirates podcast is now one of the top-rated family podcasts in the world.
Through its digital subscription, Creator Club, the company encourages early creativity via interactive events, bonus content, episode activity guides, and other digital resources. Story Pirates also advocates for arts education through its partner nonprofit, Story Pirates Changemakers.
All of these efforts foster a playful learning environment ripe for the 21st-century skills that our future creatives and critical thinkers — the online storytellers, website builders, and digital artists of all forms — will need to thrive.
Born from a Small Basement Theater in NYC
The origin of Story Pirates goes back to a school auditorium in Harlem, where a group of friends started a comedy show inspired by stories written by kids. Since then, the sketches evolved into a full-fledged educational group working off the premise that all children are creative geniuses.
“Everything we do starts with kids’ ideas, and then we bring in some of the best adult artists in the world — comedians, actors, musicians, designers, et cetera — as collaborators,” Benjamin said. “The first show that we did was in a basement theater and co-produced by, at the time, an unknown Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tommy Kail. Lin wrote ‘In the Heights’ on the same piano that we were using for Story Pirates.”
Story Pirates has always aimed to create a playful, kid-centric environment where children are honored for their words, ideas, and stories, Benjamin said.
“It has a lot of different applications in the education and family entertainment space,” he said. “We want to see a world where kids have more agency as they navigate their young lives. We want them not just to be content consumers, but to direct the content and actively contribute to it.”
Over the years, the group has launched a successful radio show, podcast, live tour, and Random House book series, all built upon children’s endlessly creative ideas. In 2018, Story Pirates released its first album, “Nothing Is Impossible,” earning both the Family Choice Award and the National Parenting Product Award (NAPPA).
Cultivating Engagement in Socially Isolated Times
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to arts and culture sectors that drive regional economies, particularly in metropolitan areas. Benjamin told us that, like many Americans, he was overwhelmed with worry when the lockdowns began in March 2020.
“I had about three days of pure panic because I couldn’t imagine how we would survive it from a cash flow perspective,” he said. “A lot of our revenue comes from live programs in hundreds of schools and theaters worldwide, ranging from the Wiltern in Los Angeles to the Kennedy Center in D.C.”
With theaters shuttered and live events on hiatus, Benjamin said he was concerned the company wouldn’t stand a chance.
“Instead, there was an enormous surge of creativity and resourcefulness within the company to create a digital Story Pirates universe that could meet fans where they are,” he said. “That coincided with a real crisis families and educators were facing in terms of needing meaningful activities for kids stuck at home. It’s been surprising and gratifying to discover that we have an important role to play at this time.”
The company’s ability to offer children an opportunity to connect — and have fun — has served as a silver lining amid the crisis, enhancing the relevancy of Story Pirates.
“At the end of the day, we’re an engagement factory,” Benjamin said. “Our fan base has grown and deepened over the last nine months or so because all we do is create content that kids need more than ever before.”
A Place for Children’s Ideas to Bloom
Benjamin told us that the company’s belief that all kids are creative geniuses underlies everything the team does.
“At the heart of every piece of content that we create, whether it be the number one podcast for kids, or a series of books based on stories written by kids, are kids’ own ideas,” he said. “We have an intimate relationship with our audience; kids send us more than a thousand stories a month — about 15,000 a year. And we read every single one of those stories, take a sampling of them, and turn them into content.”
In terms of ongoing improvement efforts, Story Pirates leans on a mix of the latest education trends plus feedback from students, parents, and educators.
“It’s a little bit of both,” Benjamin said. “We live in a dynamic world — and that’s been truer in the last nine months than it’s ever been in the 15 years since we started Story Pirates. The landscape is changing so dramatically under our feet where it almost feels like we’re in a different world every few months.”
A solid foundation has allowed Story Pirates to remain resilient in the face of change since its inception — and Benjamin said he expects that legacy to persist in the future.
“Again, the pandemic is an excellent example of how we’re flexible and malleable when it comes to bringing our programming to life,” he said. “The shape of what we’re putting out right now is drastically different than it was a year ago, but the impact it has on kids is the same. I hope that’s true 10 years from now, too. As long as we don’t lose sight of our core objective, which is to create celebratory moments for kids as they discover their creative potential, we will be able to adapt to any new tools or series of challenges ahead of us.”
All-New Activities to Build Community and Quell Anxiety
Benjamin said that, moving forward into 2021, the team will continue to focus on the Creator Club as a hub for Story Pirates fans of all kinds.
“We have fans that know us from having seen a live show several years ago; we have fans that know us because we came to their school,” he said. “Others have been podcast listeners for the last couple of years. We hope to centralize all those fans in one place — that’s what the Creator Club is for us.”
Story Pirates will also focus on digital after-school programs via its Creative Camp, built to encourage a sense of community. Fans can look forward to an additional resource in the Story Pirates Sleep Squad, a digital theater piece designed to lull children to sleep during these stressful times.
“We send kids a box through the mail containing a sleep mask, sleep journal, and light-up star machine that transforms their bedroom or living room into a magical night sky,” Benjamin said. “The show takes kids on an adventure through their own dreams and ultimately helps them get to sleep. With the heightened anxiety at this time, we feel that this is another way we can contribute.”