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,” of course) 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 simply recaps the entirety of the 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.
“So 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 himself 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 January 2017, 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 himself has struggled with insomnia for most of his life. As a child, he’d agonize each night about what the next school day would bring. That led to a thought pattern many insomniacs will recognize — 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 5 a.m. — 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 nonexistent, 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’s, “Sleep With Me” has created an entire online community of insomniacs — or rather, former insomniacs who consider Ackerman’s podcast their savior.
“It’s another goal of the podcast,” he says. “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.”
Grimes struggled with insomnia for years. She bought white-noise machines and downloaded sleepy-sound apps. She even enlisted an ex-boyfriend in her own makeshift Scooter episode, making him read aloud from his textbooks so she could shut off her anxiety and pass out.
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. Quite literally unable to toss and turn, she desperately asked friends for recommendations. Her husband discovered “Sleep With Me” — and soon enough, Martin was hooked. She says the podcast theme music acts as a “conditioning thing.” Sometimes, just hearing the theme music is enough to help her drift off.
Grimes and Martin are in that top tier of ultra-dedicated “Sleep With Me” fans — they pay for it, in one way or another. Tonya makes a monthly donation on Patreon to “her sleep button,” as she calls the podcast.
“It’s way cheaper to pay a few bucks a month for a podcast than a sleeping pill prescription,” she says. “Sleeping pills cost me $20 or $30 a month. So that’s probably the most I’ve spent on sleep because I had to. If I was really an insomniac, I can’t think that there’d be any amount of money I wouldn’t pay — but thankfully I haven’t had to.”
Grimes contributed to Ackerman’s Kickstarter (and even wears a “Sleep With Me” T-shirt to bed).
“He does a public service,” she says.
Ackerman says he still struggles to fall asleep on his own. After all, he can’t make a podcast just for himself, or read bedtime stories to quiet his own overthinking. But he says that making the podcast has helped him develop some self-soothing rituals that help. 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, in this situation,” he says. “If I’m lying there [and] I can’t sleep, at least there’s other people out there who can’t sleep.”
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