Insomniacs Unite! The Podcast That Bores You to Sleep, on Purpose

“Sleep With Me” sets out to be aural Ambien.

Feb 26 2015, 1:00pm

​Image: ​Teemu Haila/Flickr

It's 2am, and a man's voice is mumbling from my laptop, something about Game of Thrones and cats. The lights are off, the sound at half-volume, and my eyelids are beginning to acquire a heaviness known from a hundred dull university lectures.

A few minutes later I'm asleep, and the voice rambles on into the night.

Sleep Wit​h Me is a podcast that very literally lives up to its name. Each hour-long episode sets out to bore its listeners to sleep, distracting them from their own thoughts with bizarrely earnest monologues on z​ombie songs or Dian​a Rigg or Ser Po​unce, the royal cat from Game of Thrones.

The effect is like that of a visit from a pedantic, lovably odd old friend, the kind who hangs around long after their tea goes cold holding forth on their favourite obscurities. Performing under the name "Scooter" as host of Sleep With Me, creator Drew Ackerman takes questions, gives shout-outs to fans, and replies to the fan mail he receives. There's a sense of nocturnal community to the show, extending far beyond the listener's solitary eardrums.

Sleep With Me couldn't be further from other online options for insomniacs: the white and pink and grey n​oise, the ASMR and hypnosis ​videos which lull you "deeper and deeper, further and further" into the quiet recesses of your mind. In the iTunes store's 'related options' there's nothing like it, because rather than drawing the listener inward, Sleep With Me presents you with its own complex narrative, psychedelic and frequently hilarious.

Ackerman's notes for a Sleep With Me podcast. Image: Drew Ackerman

It's a very honest approach to something many of us do already. The pattern is as follows: You subscribe to a podcast about something lofty and ambitious. You play it late at night at the end of the working day, hoping to learn about Wittgenstei​n and metaphilosophy. It sends you to sleep instead. You try again the following night (by god, the Tractatus must be explained!) and little by little with each repeated try, the show acquires a new purpose, that of sleep aid rather than self-improvement.

It's strange to think of the often very serious subject matter of podcasts functioning as bedtime stories for grown ups. Over the years even some of my favourite shows have served this purpose: I went to see Ira Glass speak at a university in Dublin last year, and after queuing to meet him shook his hand and told him that I drifted off listening to This American Life so often that I worried I had somehow assimilated his accent. ("You have," he replied, and smiled his delight​ful Ira smile.)

But for Ackerman, to be told Sleep With Me is soporific is a compliment: "What's interesting is that it could just be my personality and the way I talk..."

I interviewed him over email, but true to form he replied with a series of rambling audio recordings. He's as charming and eccentric as he is on his show, full of curiosity about the niche, yet very committed community his podcast has attracted.

Ackerman's response to a question about his intuition that people need distraction, not white noise, to fall asleep.

Ackerman has no background in sleep science, no formula for how the podcast succeeds where other options often fail. "I guess it was an intuitive thing. I don't really understand how it works or why it works." He instinctively knew that silence, or white noise was never going to work: "The whole concept of quieting the mind doesn't work for me. Couldn't work for me. Maybe for some normals it does."

Instead, Ackerman relies on his own experience of insomnia as a child, unable to silence his thoughts. "I'd just be there all alone, thinking 'no one understands this.' It's a relatable thing for people who can't sleep. Even if you're married, or you're in a relationship or whatever, the person you're with needs to sleep too, and if they don't have insomnia they're not going to relate. It's almost tribal." 

With each episode he confronts what he refers to as his own harsh "internal critic," never quite sure how each episode will turn out. The recordings inspire standard on-air nerves coupled with a pressure unlike anything normal radio presenters face: the need to be sufficiently boring. But by all reports the podcast is working, and his iTunes reviews are fanatically positive: "I don't think I've ever given something five stars for being boring before." "Oh how happy I am to have found this!" "The creativity in each episode is unfettered and absurd … Please, continue to follow your compulsions, guys!"

There's something very heartfelt and rather vulnerable about Sleep With Me's fans: To appreciate his work you need to have suffered through sleepless nights. "I think it's almost a brave thing for my listeners to do," he admitted, "to decide they're going to let this guy just talk them to sleep. It's a strange vulnerability. And on the other side of that, I have to be vulnerable too. It's done in a genuine way. I don't think it could work if it wasn't." To fall asleep requires trust in the speaker.

"There's this strange intimacy when you let someone talk right into your ears"

Ackerman mentioned the death of com​edian and writer Harris Wittels last week, who was known for intensely personal appear​ances on podcast You Made it Weird and work on Comedy Bang Bang, as something of a revelatory moment, showing him the power of podcasts as a medium. Ackerman was baffled by the level of grief he felt reading about Wittels' death, until he saw it matched by the outpouring of sadness on Twitter.

"There's this strange intimacy when you let someone talk right into your ears," he said. "You get these strange digital relationships." So often technology is blamed for social isolation, but Ackerman describes listening to podcasts as communal, and therapeutic. "It's this sad but wonderful thing about podcasts. Maybe it shows up some giant ill in our society that we all feel so lonely and isolated."

If this social void exists, then culture is slowly making progress to fill it. Sleep With Me may be an experimental first, the only podcast in the iTunes store to actively try to bore its listeners, but the same technique surfaces from time to time in other forms. Over 15 years ago, inventor Matthew Ashenden developed a programme called pzi​zz (it has since become a phone app), combining binaural beats, sound effects, and a spoken narrative to lull listeners into power naps. 

When I asked Ashenden about why he chose to include voice in his product, he replied, "We believed that there was more to be gained out of using voice and structured music as opposed to just sound effects," adding that he wanted to create a more active listening experience for time-pressed users.

Staying awake at night has become that little bit less lonely

More recently, actor and sometime country singer Jeff Bridges released Sle​eping Tapes, a musical and spoken word collaboration with composer Keefus Ciancia. In it the actor known to most of us as Th​e Dude croaks his way through fifteen tracks of jazz trumpets, nature sounds and storytelling, delivered in a style one could term "avuncular mumble​core." It's comforting and cheerfully weird, culminating in a series of affirmations ("You are a good person… I like your haircut...") and a farewell statement that "We're all in this together."

And we are. For insomniacs around the world, our cravings for a distinct brand of coherent nonsense have been validated, and staying awake at night has become that little bit less lonely. For me, Sleep With Me and Sleeping Tapes occupy a role previously filled by podcasts meant for waking hours: I no longer feel guilty nodding off in the middle of shows about the economics of c​hocolate or whether cr​ows mourn their dead, which demand the listener's attention.

Despite our best intentions, these stories end up being background noise. We might wish for a blank and peaceful mind, but the media we're bombarded with every day often renders such a thing impossible.

The next best thing is to drown out our thoughts with spoken words. They cover the drone of the cities outside our windows. They spirit us away into surreal fictions, filling lonely silences with the psychedelic and strange. Though they offer little more than a solitary voice, they make us feel less alone.