Every 'Sleep With Me,' listener has a story. They started listening to the podcast after years of debilitating insomnia, or days spent in a hospital bed. Or, in my case, hours into an attempt at wrestling myself asleep while curled atop a dingy yoga mat in friend’s apartment one swampy Manhattan eve.
Very few people can make it to the end of an episode, and that’s exactly host Drew 'Scooter' Ackerman’s intention. Part bizarro bedtime story, and part guided meditation, 'Sleep With Me' is, in the words of it’s own tagline, “The podcast that puts you to sleep.” And it works.
Part of its charm is the meandering style of storytelling that Ackerman uses to lull droves of overworked minds to sleep by way of their headphones. “I’m just prone to tangents and being overly curious,” Ackerman told Civilized. “I was always good at telling stories. It was never super engaging, it was always, like, a laying around the park thing.” Using both his relaxed-yet-amusing narrative style and languid, jovial voice, Ackerman’s podcast is a sleep cocktail that knocks you out cold, and lets you wake up sans NyQuil fog.
Part of the magic of “Sleep With Me,” is that it unplugs the treadmill of thoughts that cycle through an anxious mind. Tuck yourself in with a fresh episode, and all those worries about bank statements, inboxes, and unchecked to-dos evaporate while Ackerman muses on lentils or what it’s like to be a grain of sand.
“The line that I’m trying to walk, is not to be too interesting, but not be so boring that people will start thinking again,” he explained.
On iTunes, and in the show’s popular Facebook group, listeners often recount using the show to help overcome the sleepless nights of early sobriety or chronic pain. They are uniformly grateful to 'Scoots' for guiding them peacefully into, as he calls it, “the deep, dark night.”
Ackerman wasn’t always the Mayor of the Land of Nod.
“I couldn’t sleep when I was in grammar school," he said. "I had dyslexia, but I didn’t get diagnosed for it. Right around 5th grade, I started to see school as a very ‘Me versus them’ situation. I would spend every night worrying about it.”
Even at an early age, struggles with sleeplessness left Ackerman feeling alone with his anxiety. “My parents would be like, ‘Why don’t you just think about something nice,’ and I’d be like ‘I can’t think about something nice!.’ It was good intentioned, but it in trying to help me, they made me feel more isolated.”
Then, in 6th grade, a classmate told Ackerman about Dr. Demento's radio comedy show, and he began listening to it on Sunday nights. “It never put me to sleep, but it made me forget. Just listening to these jokes, or whatever, made me totally forget the pain of not being able to sleep. I never forgot those two things: the pain of not being able to sleep, and the escape that the radio offered me. I think that’s really where the podcast came from.”
Compassion and respect for his listeners are also driving forces for the podcast. The underlying theme of every tale is that you are not alone with your wakefulness. “The person listening to the podcast, I want them to feel like they were treated with dignity and respect. This is something to help them feel more comfortable and make bedtime less of a pain in the ass.”
Ackerman easily connects with listeners because he still occasionally encounters sleepless nights. “I’m a high strung, high anxiety person during the day. I’m just always worrying. That’s why I have trouble sleeping.”
The restless tendencies that are common with over-thinkers are also somewhat compounded for him, due to the fact that he quit drinking around when he started the podcast. “Before, I self-medicated with alcohol. That works really well for falling asleep, but for the rest of my life, it wasn’t working. After I quit drinking, I was like, ‘Holy crap, how am I going to sleep now?’”
A deliberate bedtime routine has helped him maintain a fairly consistent sleep schedule, but on the nights when sleep eludes him, “I just take it as an alerting moment. Now I know what my listeners are like.”
Ironically, the anxious tendencies that keep Ackerman awake also play into what makes his show so calming. “It’s almost like I have to do some self-soothing to overcome the performance anxiety of making the podcast. I really sit down to record, like, ‘Okay, man. We’re just gonna tell a bedtime story. We’re just gonna do our best. To make the show I have to be calm, and I’m trying to calm the listener at the same time.”
Keeping everybody calm means choosing topics that will be soothing, and that live in a vacuum away from the news cycle. “Living in the current environment we’re in, it does offer this alternative it’s almost an alternative universe.”
Ackerman does “a second take if I accidentally talk about snakes, spiders, or money.” He also does recurring episodes in which he reads ideal white-noise material like old TV Guides, or spins yarns about the grocery store. “Trader Joe’s is a pretty neutral or positive image most people have, so it gives me a lot of space to play. Everybody has so many memories or associations with grocery stores, so it gives me a lot of tangents to go on.”
But the topics he discusses can still hit a nerve sometimes. Recently, a riff on the amount of calories in Slurpees led one listener to email Ackerman and ask if he’d consider removing the section, in consideration of listeners who struggle with eating disorders. “It’s not like I’m, going to whitewash everything,” he said, “But if I start talking about candy, I might try to be a little more mindful of someone who has an issue around food.”
“It’s hard,” Ackerman conceded with an audibly flustered sigh, “You can’t please everyone.” Still, playing aural Sandman, has been an experience for which Ackerman is as grateful as his listeners. “It helps me have more faith in humanity. It’s like, ‘Okay, let’s just not watch the news.’ It’s a breath of fresh air sometimes.”
images by Chris Duffey and Natalie Jennings