The first time you listen to the Sleep With Me podcast, you might spend the first 10 minutes feeling utterly perplexed. Who is Scooter, and why on earth is he droning on about a self-styled tour of the La Brea Tar Pits? And, sorry, but how is this supposed to be soothing and sleep-inducing, exactly?
The next thing you know, you’re waking up in a puddle of pillow drool and nine hours have passed.
At least, that’s how I first experienced this podcast, which was created by a librarian named Drew Ackerman (known to his listeners as “Scooter”); I felt bemusement and a little confusion, followed by a surprisingly swift (abrupt, even) transition into blissful, deep sleep. No white noise, no ASMR, no soothing sounds of ocean waves or trickling streams, just one man with a monotonous voice and a babbling, nearly nonsensical story. Yet, Ackerman’s signature brand of gently whimsical storytelling somehow manages to hit the “mute” button on the ever-churning froth of anxious thought patterns that keep us up at night. Ackerman has a knack for using his voice and his words to build a cozy, safe, warm burrow in which the jaw can unclench and the mind can meander. Or, as one reviewer succinctly and accurately describes it, “His voice is like a tranquilizer dart straight to the brain.”
Judging by more than a thousand near-perfect ratings and reviews on the podcast’s iTunes page (not to mention its 2.9 million monthly downloads by listeners), my experience wasn’t unique. “This man is a genius,” writes one reviewer. “Better than Ambien,” states another. One former insomniac describes it as a “miracle cure”—a bold claim, sure, but could it be possible that Ackerman has nailed the scientific formula for a truly effective bedtime story?
He’s certainly been honing his craft for long enough. Growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia, Ackerman spent many sleepless nights as a kid worrying about school. “Sunday nights were the worst,” says Ackerman (an opinion shared by probably all of us). But when a wise classmate steered him toward the “Doctor Demento” radio show, a switch flipped. “[The show] interrupted my thought patterns and allowed me to escape for an hour or two,” he says. Cue the lightbulb moment, years later.
That strategy would become the foundation for Sleep With Me and its wandering, seemingly aimless narrative; a story that distracts you just enough to push the pause button on those racing thoughts, without drawing you in and keeping your mind hooked the way an episode of Orange Is the New Black might. Ackerman releases three episodes a week, which typically include a rambling recap of a television episode (like Star Trek: The Next Generation), a pre-written story, and an hour-long, stream-of-conscious tale Ackerman might make up on the spot. (He says he used to find inspiration for those stories in Twitter's trending topics section, but nowadays, the daily IV drip of nightmare fuel from social media is hardly conducive to a good night’s rest.)
With most episodes topping out at more than an hour in length, it’s pretty incredible that Ackerman pours so much weekly time and effort into planning, recording, and editing the kind of work that is typically received by a mostly unconscious audience. But, despite sending his work out into the ether on the reg, Ackerman says he feels like the work he does is more than the sum of its parts. “Part of it is this human element, and that's weird in this digital age or whatever, but people know the podcast is going to be there three times a week,” he says. Like a note from a pen pal, knowing a new podcast awaits on a regular schedule, is a comfort to some. He also feels a sense of connection with, compassion for, and perhaps even duty toward the most dedicated listeners who truly struggle with falling asleep—a loneliness he can relate to, after all those sleepless nights in his own childhood. “There are four or five people I hear from regularly who are chronic insomniacs,” he says. “Especially in the face of the last six, 12, whatever, months knowing that there's this large number of people out there that are having a tough time. A lot of listeners know there are other people out there listening to this podcast that are hurting, too, and that they can't sleep either.”
Knocking people unconscious with his storytelling is a hidden superpower, but Ackerman makes it clear that he’s not a therapist, a magic bullet for sleep issues, or a substitute for medical treatment of insomnia. Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta (who goes by Dr. Raj), a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, says that while a podcast like this can be helpful for getting to sleep, there are other pieces of the sleep hygiene puzzle necessary for achieving a good, full night’s rest, and those shouldn’t be neglected. “The role of sound, temperature, your pillow and bedding, the role of meditation—certain things work for some individuals and not for others because sleep is very individualized,” Dr. Raj says. Plus, he adds, stimulus control—the idea that the only thing you should be doing in your bed is sleeping—means that fiddling with your iPhone to dial up a podcast while laying in bed might not be a great idea.
Ackerman’s podcast might be more of a Band-Aid fit for occasional use than a long-term solution for the chronically sleep-deprived, but, Dr. Raj says, using something like this, as opposed to relying on prescription drugs, could be a healthier solution. “Anyone who’s doing something to help you get more sleep, I’m on board,” he says. (He does emphasize that for true insomniacs, few solutions can beat the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy.) As far as why Sleep With Me is so effective for some people? Raj explains that it’s widely understood that distracting yourself from sneaky anxiety spirals without activating your brain too much can help. “It’s well-known that if you [watch or listen to] something that stimulates thought and emotion, you won’t transition into sleep,” he says.
In other words? There just might be an art and science to the perfect, boring bedtime story. And if a thousand reviews and 3 million downloads are any proof, this librarian-by-day, sleep-whisperer-by-night may have nailed it.