Drew Ackerman is a human sleeping pill. Listening to him drone on about everything from cat wisdom to free refills for spilled juice at a Disney theme park is like sitting through a college course on estate taxes, taught by a senile professor. The difference is that being mind-numbingly boring is Ackerman's shtick. And it's making him a cult figure on the podcast circuit, one pointless anecdote at a time.
There's always a dull moment in Ackerman's Sleep With Me, The Podcast that Puts You to Sleep. He rambles on about the operating system of his iPhone, ponders whether pillows can procreate and weaves in non sequiturs about Judy Garland and harpsichords. It's weird, nonsensical and well-nigh unhinged. But Ackerman's "stupor-fans" can't get enough of his monotonous show.
Sleep With Me has a five-star rating on iTunes, based on 849 customer reviews. It typically ranks in the top 50 most-popular podcasts (beating out Real Time with Bill Maher and The Economist Radio podcasts).
In an iTunes review, listener Adriane Kuzminski of Hartford, Conn., described Ackerman's show as a sleep aid that mimics how our minds work in slumber: "Each episode is unfettered and absurd, similar to when forgotten events and memories pop in our dreams with no particular logic."
But Ackerman's bizarre bedtime stories aren't as off the cuff as they sound. Ackerman, 41, says it takes him 40 to 50 hours to produce three hour-long podcasts each week. Since November, 2013, he has churned out more than 330 episodes of Sleep With Me, in addition to its companion podcasts Game of Drones (dull recaps of the hit TV show) and Sleep to Strange (a series of progressively mundane yarns). By day, he works full-time as a librarian in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In his podcast persona, "Dearest Scooter," Ackerman has a sluggish drawl that makes him sound stoned. But he insists no drugs are consumed in the making of his snooze-inducing monologues. Planning the right vocal cadence and quirky mix of topics for each episode often keeps him awake at night. "I am a highly self-critical person," he said, "and it takes a lot of effort to keep those demons at bay."
Ackerman has had trouble sleeping since he was a child. He and his brother used to tell each other stories in their room each night, which became the inspiration for Sleep With Me, he said. Another influence was Dr. Demento, the syndicated comedy radio show that helped launch Weird Al Yankovic's oddball career. Ackerman used to tune in to Dr. Demento at night while in grade school: "It made me forget about the dread I had about not being able to sleep."
He describes his commitment to Sleep With Me as a moral obligation to the insomniac community. "It really does feel like some sacred pact we have, because they are trusting me in their bedrooms when they are vulnerable and their guard is down."
Dozens of listeners have written to him about what keeps them awake at night: chronic physical pain, emotional problems, intense grief after the loss of a dog. "It's heartbreaking," he said.
Ackerman does not pretend to be a therapist or sleep guru, but says he pays close attention to their feedback to keep each podcast as lulling as possible. (Several fans complained when he started singing in one episode, saying it woke them up.)
Each episode must pass two tests, he said. Will this put someone to sleep? And will this be comforting to listeners who don't end up falling asleep?
For those who simply cannot nod off, Ackerman said his goal is to be "like a friend in the night talking, just like Dr. Demento was there for me."