And that’s where Sleep With Me comes in. The podcast is, intentionally, as boring as possible, and it has thousands of listeners across the US.
Drew Ackerman – or “Scooter” as he calls himself on the podcast – says that on Sleep With Me, he plays the role of “your boring drunk friend.” Each episode opens with the “Dear Scooter” theme song, then Ackerman introduces himself (as “Scooter”) and begins to talk, ceaselessly, and in the least interesting way. What does he talk about? It barely matters.
In his spinoff series, Game Of Drones, he recaps the entire HBO hit show. The plot of a recent episode is much more straightforward: “The episode starts with a trip to Trader Joe’s. Then we make two Super Bowl sandwiches.”
“I had tried podcasts before, listening to Radiolab or (This American Life) or whatever, but they’re generally too interesting to ignore,” says listener Andrea Grimes. “And the TV with the light and the things is not great. So as soon as there was this nice-sounding man giving me permission to ignore him – that’s all women want – I was like, ‘This is fantastic.’ I was just immediately into it.”
And yes, Grimes is being totally serious about this. So is Ackerman, who first started recording his “boring bedtime” episodes five years ago. His somnolent storytelling skills date back to his childhood.
“I always shared a room with someone, and I can remember telling boring bedtime stories back then, when my brothers couldn’t sleep, these strange, circuitous stories,” he says.
“Even when we were camping or at parks, I’d say, ‘Oh, let me make up a story.’ Always wandering, meandering stories.”
And Sleep With Me seems to be the first podcast of its kind in the genre of narrative sleep podcasts. There’s “peaceful noise” playlists, white noise machines, and ASMR YouTube channels. And there’s children’s bedtime storytelling podcasts, such as We Love Bedtime Stories by Leslie Collins – but nothing specially designed for adult insomniacs.
Nothing, that is, until Sleep With Me.
When the podcast began, Ackerman didn’t first know how to promote it. He’d tweet at people complaining about baggy eyes and tired brains, but that didn’t work. He says word of mouth among those who struggle with sleep has been the biggest force pushing his podcast.
As of last month, Ackerman says, Sleep with Me counts 2.3 million monthly downloads. New fans also download his entire back catalogue – hundreds of episodes – to start at the very beginning.
Ackerman has struggled with insomnia for most of his life. As a child, he’d agonise each night about what the next school day would bring. That led to a thought pattern many insomniacs will recognise – one where you can’t fall asleep one night, you’re stressed about falling asleep the next night, and the next, and soon you’re stressed even just thinking about sleep.
This is the kind of active brain that kept Ackerman awake until 4 or 5am – the “’what does it mean to go to sleep?’ overthinking” – until he discovered comedy podcasts.
He experimented with his own podcasts, recording the same boring bedtime stories he used to tell his younger brothers. In the beginning, his listenership was almost non-existent, but he continued posting a new podcast every night, so that his insomniac fans would have a new podcast to deter sleeplessness for a few hours more.
“My predominant problem is headspace,” Grimes says. “I am anxious, I think a lot of the day ahead, all the dumb stupid embarrassing things that just passed. All that stuff. It’s always been a bigger deal for me than any kind of physical discomfort. You can put on an eye mask or get a new pillow or wear earplugs – but until I had Sleep With Me, there was no getting out of my headspace.”
Beyond just calming down active brains like Grimes’, Sleep With Me has created an entire online community of former insomniacs who consider Ackerman’s podcast their saviour.
“It’s another goal of the podcast. There’s this community now. Even if you can’t fall asleep when you’re listening to this podcast, I’ll at least be here for an hour telling you this silly story. I’m here while you’re going through this miserable experience,” he says.
Listener Tonya Martin first downloaded Sleep With Me during the third trimester of her first pregnancy, when her anti-anxiety medication still wouldn’t relieve her physical discomfort. Her husband discovered Sleep With Me – and soon Martin was hooked.
Grimes and Martin are in that top tier of dedicated Sleep With Me fans – they pay for it, in one way or another. Tonya makes a monthly donation to “her sleep button,” as she calls the podcast.
Ackerman says making the podcast has helped him develop some self-soothing rituals. And even when those fail him, he knows now that those hours of sleeplessness aren’t really as lonely as he once thought. “Even if we’re not totally connected, there’s other people lying there... who can’t sleep.”