When you think of popular podcasts, you most likely think of true-crime thrillers and political deep dives. But, it turns out, while everyone was busy obsessing over Serial, podcast producers were quietly targeting another audience: the legions of Americans who are wide awake at 2 a.m.
Noting the millions of people who toss and turn when they should be deep in REM-land, podcast producers—best known for spinning eye-opening tales—have begun using their magic perversely, coupling numbing content and a mumbling monotone to battle insomnia. Today, sleep-inducing podcasts are proliferating faster than you can count sheep.
The original: Sleep With Me
The master of the genre is Drew Ackerman, who as an anxious child appreciated being read to at night. Five years ago he had the brainy idea of producing bedtime stories for adults—not X-rated, just less frightening than, say, Disney’s Cinderella. Thanks perhaps to these anxious times, his suggestively titled podcast Sleep With Me is going gangbusters, with zillions of listeners downloading hundreds of episodes with meandering narratives that never go anywhere (yawn).
On the phone, Ackerman is fun and engaging, not to mention patient—I am not, it seems, the first nitwit to ask how an inconclusive shaggy dog story with a name like “Game of Drones,” told in a low, pebbly voice, manages to put people to sleep.
“It needs to be just interesting enough to keep their minds off what is keeping them awake but not too interesting,” he says of the winning formula that has attracted more than a million downloads a month and spawned its own Facebook community of 6,000 plus sleep fans. Ackerman has learned to avoid certain topics—snakes and clowns, for example, not to mention anything with too much emotional resonance. “I recently did one on a relationship in a state of flux during the holidays,” he says, and the implied tension “was a little off-putting for those who could relate.”
To get in just the right head space, Ackerman records his podcasts in “a small closet under the stairs,” using index cards to remind himself to slow down his delivery. The result is “like putting on a pair of worn gloves,” he says—warm, comfy, and something that doesn’t require a lot of energy.
For insomniacs who still can’t shut down their internal soundtracks, Ackerman recommends the ultimate buzz kill: the BBC’s shipping forecast.
Listen to the “Game of Drones” episode of Sleep With Me:
The best of the rest(ful)
Rival podcaster Craig Richard, PhD—nom de nuit Harris—offers SleepWhispers, based on research that went into his book Brain Tingles: The Secret to Triggering Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response for Improved Sleep, Stress Relief, and Head-to-Toe Euphoria. His podcasts are just what they sound like: whatever comes to his mind, delivered sotto voce. He clearly has followers, though I found his irritating whisper unable to trigger sleep, much less an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response, sometimes referred to as a “brain-gasm”).
Debbie Galant, who produced an award-winning podcast about her bout with cancer, turned to sleep-inducing podcasts when she couldn’t shut down thoughts of her aging parents, or what she calls the “Debbie Channel.” It goes like this: “I have insomnia—why am I not sleeping?” she says. “Then I read that book Why We Sleep [note: available as an audiobook], and it freaked me out—it’s a horror story because it says sleep cleans out tangles in the brain that cause Alzheimer’s, so consciousness is brain damage and sleep is repair, so if your mother has Alzheimer’s it turns you into a zombie—it’s terrible.”
Galant gave up Sleep With Me because of Ackerman’s lengthy introductions, which “focused so much attention on the fact that I was an insomniac it kept me awake.” (Ever-sensitive Ackerman offers a spinoff, Sleep to Strange, that ditches the intro and goes directly to his go-nowhere sleep tales.) Galant has since learned that certain recorded books work wonderfully, most notably dipping in and out of Circe, a hypnotic retelling of the Greek sorceress’s life, and Virginia Woolf’s elliptical tale, To the Lighthouse, each read in a soothing British accent.
Podcasts that try to explain finance, history, and science can be reliable sleep inducers too. Some insomniacs turn to Stuff You Should Know (a typical topic is the origins of the igloo) or 99% Invisible (introducing the raccoon-resistant compost bin), others to public radio’s dependable nap companion, Science Friday’s Ira Flatow.
Why podcasts put us to sleep
Producer Noah Levinson argues that the medium is more important than the message, and that content and style of delivery aren’t the point.“What podcasts give you that’s really nice is intimacy,” he says. Settling in with one is like reaching for “a blanket or pillow, trying to get comfortable. It helps me to turn off my brain.” He likes to doze to two guys just talking.
Speaking of comfort, it’s important to pick the right delivery vehicle: smartphone (if you sleep alone), headphones (if you sleep on your back), or a single earbud (if you’re a side sleeper). One of my Facebook sources swears by a wireless sleep mask with built-in Bluetooth.
Others prefer to sleep untethered. Levinson separates himself from his smartphone when “I’m just awake enough to turn it off, when I’m not understanding the words anymore, and I’m barely able to think.” Ahhhh, perchance to dream!
And when even the softest earbuds and soothing voice can’t do the job, Galant confesses that she has a fallback: Ambien.
Still need help falling asleep? Here are 10 more nighttime activities to help you relax.