Drew Ackerman is a podcaster. While the medium is having a moment, his podcast is very different from the others you might have queued up on your iPhone. Ackerman’s podcast is not exciting, nor does it tell interesting stories; a Best Buy parking lot there is not. Unlike NPR, it doesn’t make you feel smart or provide critical analysis of the news. Ackerman’s podcast is so boring that it is nearly impossible to finish an episode without nodding off to dreamland—by design.
The goal of his podcast is to bore you to sleep.
Each episode of Sleep With Me, the podcast Ackerman produces, writes, and records outside of his day job at a library in the East Bay several times a week, clocks in at about an hour, give or take a few minutes. Most episodes follow a loosely scripted yarn that blends Ackerman’s purposefully droll monotone with a stream-of-consciousness narrative that frequently veers into winding tangents about . . . nothing. Each episode is designed to get more boring the longer you listen—a sort of interestingness decrescendo. It’s insubstantial, and hypnotic, like Knausgaard intoned by your tenth-grade history teacher who never wanted to be there. Although Sleep With Me is only 15 months old, Ackerman tells Fast Company that the idea is actually much older.
“I’m from a family of six kids and I shared a room with my brother,” says Ackerman. “And I remember when we couldn’t sleep, we’d just tell these wicked stories. And he would fall asleep. I thought it was going to be reciprocal, but it never was.” The idea behind some sort of digital sandman that tucks you into bed was put on the back burner for a long time. Then the podcasting boom happened. “As a medium, it offers a way to experiment with ideas like that,” he says. “It’s such a low-cost, easy-to-distribute thing. Even if no one listens—or even if a certain amount of people listen—there isn’t really a big barrier to entry.”
On the phone, Ackerman is lively and thoughtful, with a dry sense of humor that occasionally seeps into his podcast. Before Sleep With Me—an innuendo he decided to go with because “it was tough not to come up with something that did not either sound lame like ‘Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups’ or a Cinemax show like ‘Adult Bedtime Stories’”—he had no radio or podcasting experience to speak of. Zero. It is very much an experiment that the medium’s pliable structure affords him.
“I have no following and no background, other than as a podcast listener,” he claims. Likes millions of people, he loved Serial. But he is also a fan of Welcome to Night Vale—which is huge—and more esoteric fare like Rob Cesternino’s podcast, which puts the competitive strategies used on Survivor under a microscope. Like Sleep With Me, it’s a show whose existence is hard to imagine in any other format.
One night recently, I decided to fire up an episode of Sleep With Me in which Ackerman discusses one of his favorite topics, Game of Thrones. Instead of the most recent season, though, this was a recap of an episode from season 3, “Valar Dohaeris.” As someone who has trouble falling asleep, I’m happy to report it worked as advertised. After tucking my phone under my pillow and hitting play, I don’t remember how I fell asleep, or how long it took. It just happened. Occasionally, I’d hear things like Tyrion, or Cersei. At one point, there is a dreary recitation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.”
To give you a sense of the tone, here’s a random transcription taken from the middle of the episode:
. . . We have Joff in one of those little mini RVs that they carry around, and he’s sniffing one of those perfumed hankies like a big wuss. And then we stop in the middle, and Margaery is in another one and she gets out. There’s a bone-and-stars symbol on the wall that I couldn’t figure out…. Is that an orphanage? Not just orphans. War orphans, it seems. She brings them gift and sits with them. She showers some of them with affection and attention, and talks about how she’s going to feed them and clothe them and house them. And Joff seems afraid, but also a little titillated about the whole thing. Something about her confidence, and her genuineness. And then . . .
And on and on it goes.
Ackerman says he is unsure how many people actually listen to the podcast. It has an average of 5 stars out of 258 reviews on iTunes. But he says he gets frequent thank-you notes from fans with odd jobs in a range of industries. At least two Sleep With Me fans work on submarines. A woman who works as a coal train driver—a grueling job where she works for seven straight 12-hour days—wrote this on his Facebook wall: “Thank you so much for helping me rest and sleep at ridiculous times throughout my work swing. It is helping me feel more alert while at work. Your voice is soothing to me and I really appreciate the effort you put in.”
This kind of feedback from fans is not uncommon. “People constantly describe this Pavlovian thing where they hear my previews and they nod off,” he says.
I had to ask: Is it weird knowing that you’re the last thing lots of people hear during this really intimate time of their night? “It’s a leap of faith for people to listen to the podcast,” he says. “You’re gonna let this stranger in. And when people tell me they were skeptical at first, I love that! That would be my reaction. Like: ‘I’m gonna be in bed? And I’m gonna listen to you? And let my guard down? And fall asleep? And have earbuds in?’ One of the assets of podcasting is you have this strange digital intimacy.”
Ackerman says he isn’t trying to secretly hypnotize his audience to do his bidding, and although sponsors have reached out to him, he’s very careful about maintaining the trust he’s built. “I could be evil at the end of the podcast and slip in sponsorships,” he says with a laugh. “But I don’t want to stress anybody out. You can trust me; I’m not trying to do pseudoscience stuff. If I do have sponsors down the road, I’ll have a low bullshit tolerance.”
One of the stranger aspects of helping perfect strangers fall asleep, especially with this format, is that it’s difficult to gauge whether he’s on the right track. The metrics for success for a podcast built around boredom are totally warped. “The more success my podcast gets, the less time people listen,” he says.
Ackerman says he has had his own bouts with insomnia, “thinking about stuff at night.” (Right now, he’s listening to Moby Dick to help him snooze.) But he finds it rewarding to provide listeners with what he considers a valuable service, even if it is largely white noise. As for what’s next, Ackerman says he envisions doing a separate podcast with sleep as the topic–not necessarily the outcome. Ideally it would be something where he could interview “real sleep experts,” people who “know what they’re talking about.” Another idea is to launch a Sleep With Me offshoot that’s more PG-rated. A bedtime story that puts kids to sleep “would definitely be fun.”
At one point I joke that maybe this is just the beginning of his sleep media empire. He pauses, gathers his thoughts, and says he likes the idea. The “Bill Simmons of boredom,” he says, chuckling.