When a rattled, aghast Macbeth staggers into Act II of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, moments after stabbing the slumbering Duncan to death, he gives voice to one of the Bard’s most startling lines: “Macbeth does murder sleep.” Then, as the doomed Scot eulogizes the “innocent sleep” he has just slaughtered, his words grow elegiac. Sleep, he says, is the “balm of hurt minds,” the “chief nourisher in life’s feast” and, most famously, it “knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” Infusing every word is Macbeth’s mournful realization that, as a murderer, he will never again know any of those gifts. He’s screwed.
Four hundred years later, while Americans might not be murdering sleep outright, we seem to be doing our damnedest to bludgeon it into a kind of permanent, sluggish wakefulness. Thirty percent of adults in the U.S. enjoy six or fewer hours of sleep each night. According to the CDC, people who sleep less than five to six hours a night are up to 45 percent more likely to be obese than those who get the recommended seven to nine hours. More than 85 percent of high schoolers, meanwhile, get far less than their recommended eight to 10 hours of shuteye—a shortfall that constitutes “a serious threat to their health, safety, and academic success.”
Enter Drew Ackerman, a 41-year-old librarian in the Bay Area and the man behind the odd, wonderful and, if a thousand or so overwhelmingly positive reviews on iTunes are any indication, the enormously effective podcast, “Sleep With Me,” which Ackerman himself calls “a lulling, droning, boring bedtime story to distract your racing mind.”
To characterize what Ackerman puts together three times a week as a mere “bedtime story,” though, is a bit like calling the Odyssey a tale of a guy who got lost on his way home. What Ackerman has created since airing his first episode in October of 2013 is in some ways closer, in intent and in kind, to a mammoth, stream-of-consciousness novel (comprised of, by now, well over 300 chapters) narrated by his slow-talking alter ego, “Scooter.” And all of it, every minute, is crafted with one aim in mind: to put people to sleep.
Ackerman’s pithy written summations of the episodes probably provide as clear an indication of the sort of engaging weirdness a curious listener can expect to encounter during any given podcast. (The episodes’ runtimes are, roughly, anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes—and yet, somehow, they all feel to be pretty much the same length.) For example, here’s Ackerman’s teaser for a recent installment: “Unwind with me with a night of knocks and a round of broccoli races. Sleep as my respite is interrupted by my childhood piano teacher. It’s apology time and I have a feeling Judy Garland is upset with me. As you sink deep into your cushiony bed I will float into the clouds on a piano carried by eagles.”
Aesop’s fables, it ain’t.
The stories are delivered in Scooter’s assiduously unmodulated drawl; he sounds more than a little like the actor Owen Wilson, if Wilson recorded surreal fairy tales for a 33 1/3 rpm record meant to be played back at around, say, 28 1/2 rpm.
But perhaps the most unusual element of the entire “Sleep With Me” venture is, as Ackerman sees it, the paradoxical nature of his effort. His goal, after all, is to help people fall asleep, to distract the listener’s “racing mind.” If he’s doing his job, the vast majority of his listeners will never hear a full episode—much less the entire, ever-unfolding Scooterology opus. They’ll be asleep long before any given episode ends.
At the same time, being a storyteller, Ackerman wants every episode, as seemingly disjointed and haywire as it might seem, to feel complete.
“I don’t really have rules for myself when writing,” Ackerman says of his approach to the notes and sometimes carefully drawn scenarios that serve as narrative guides to the episodes. “The vast majority of my listeners simply expect me to help them fall asleep, and the feedback I get suggests that my moving from topic to unrelated topic to unrelated topic does just that. But I also have an enormous freedom when writing. Most people aren’t going to hear full episodes, so even though I’m driven to make each one feel whole, I still have all of this room to play around. I can take an episode wherever I feel like taking it, because I’ve learned over the past two years that I have to meander if I’m going to help people fall sleep.”
There are, of course, a slew of insomnia-fighting podcasts and other digital sleep aids out there, from the ingenious, gamelan-like “Listen to Wikipedia,” which plays a never-repeating series of bells, strings, and other notes, all of which represent edits to Wikipedia pages in real time, to the countless—and, to some people, profoundly creepy—autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, videos found on YouTube. (If you’ve always dreamed of encountering strangers who earnestly whisper random nothings to you while they cut fabric with scissors, try on hats, or scrape their fingernails slowly across a microphone, you’re in luck. ASMR is for you.)
But none of the myriad efforts to help people battle insomnia have taken as unlikely—or as entertaining, even when heard for just a few minutes—an approach as that enacted by “Sleep With Me.” Whether he’s reading aloud, with wry asides, from a Washington Post column on feminism and Game of Thrones; riffing on battery-life issues in the spirit world; or mulling over why “Drake” is probably a better name to call out than “Super Dave Osborne” if you find yourself in trouble in a dream, Ackerman/Scooter moves with evident ease not only between topics, but between landscapes and entire worlds.
And as Scooter wanders down that winding, undulating, occasionally switchback road of his own devising, the listener quickly begins to feel that it’s OK to hang back, to wander off, to hear Scooter’s voice growing distant, and not to worry about it. Five or 10 minutes later comes blessed sleep—according to a rigorously unscientific poll conducted with friends and family members who swear by “Sleep With Me.” (Disclosure: This writer does not suffer from insomnia. He does sometimes listen to Scooter, though.)
For Drew Ackerman, the seeds of what would become “Sleep With Me” were planted decades ago in upstate New York, where he grew up. In the bedroom they shared, he and his younger brother would take turns telling “incredibly boring and stupid” stories to one another—“stories about gum balls, or walking around town”—on those nights when neither of them could fall asleep. But perhaps the strongest inspiration for what has become destination podcasting for tens of thousands of listeners every week was the old, syndicated Dr. Demento radio show out of Los Angeles.
“When I was in fifth and sixth grade, I had trouble in school and Sunday nights before the school week started again were always terrible,” Ackerman recalls. “But I would listen to Dr. Demento for two solid hours every Sunday night, and I loved it. It didn’t help me sleep, but the silliness of it helped all of that anxiety just fall away. And that’s something I want ‘Sleep With Me’ to give to people—some reassurance that they have this podcast to turn to. It’s a safe place where they can just stop worrying about everything for a while.”
And how does Drew Ackerman, who admits to being “way more spastic, awkward, and caffeinated” than Scooter, manage to get to sleep? Turns out, it’s the old-fashioned way.
“I start slowing down an hour before I go to bed. If I take an hour and sit quietly, maybe do a little writing and then read for half an hour, I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance I’ll fall asleep.”
Like the old song says: Whatever gets you through the night.