Drew Ackerman does his best work in the closet.
Ackerman couldn’t sleep as a kid, so now he tells rambling, sleep-inducing stories on his wildly successful podcast.
Every week, Drew Ackerman goes into his closet, arranges himself around his clothes, and talks into a microphone in an attempt to bore people. To insomniacs across the globe, Ackerman is somewhat of a superhero. During the day, he’s a mild-mannered librarian working for the county of Alameda. But at night, he’s Scooter, narrator of the popular podcast Sleep With Me, where he tells bedtime stories designed to lull adults to sleep.
As a kid growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., Ackerman couldn’t sleep. His parents slept well, and didn’t understand. Couldn’t he just stop thinking about whatever was stressing him out? Desperate, he turned to comedy radio programs like Dr. Demento. They didn’t help him sleep, but helped distract him from his anxious thoughts.
In 2013, Ackerman, an Alameda resident, was listening to a lot of podcasts. He thought the format might make a good fit for an offbeat idea: boring bedtime stories. “I just can’t forget what it was like lying there, tossing and turning and not being able to sleep,” he said.
He soon developed a fan base for his distinctive storytelling. Ackerman’s tales, which he performs under the name Scooter, start with a quarter-hour introduction and a greeting to “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and friends beyond the binary.” Afterward, his voice—creaky, with a slight New York accent—slows down, and he’ll embark on the episode’s lackadaisical story. A simple premise, whether it’s a trip to the barber or a talking Prius, becomes a meandering affair, packed with useless amounts of detail, overly long tangents, and mind-numbing dialogue.
“Most ideas are stuff I come across during the day, like candy apples—what’s the best candied apple? Would you use a Granny Smith? Or is that too tart? Do apples have acne? Because the apple I’m picturing has these little bumps. What that’s called?” Ackerman said. “At some point most listeners [think], OK, I don’t need to keep paying attention. I think even the brain is, like, I don’t have to keep processing this language; I can check out.”
His stories are carefully structured to be engaging enough to distract listeners from their circling thoughts, but soporific and repetitive enough to relax them. It’s a tricky balancing act that Ackerman compares to walking around Alameda: “You could take a lot of different lefts and rights, or walk to the water, but you know you’re not going to get lost.”
The podcast, with its chronicles of nuns in space, or Roberta Claus (Santa’s replacement), is goofy. But Ackerman takes his responsibility to his listeners seriously.
“This podcast is a safe place,” Ackerman said. “I want the podcast to feel like this open environment, because we’re getting into this very divided situation during the day in politics. It’s important to remind people: This is a place where you can let your guard down.”
Last summer, Ackerman started worrying. How was he going to keep up with the 40-hour-a-week time commitment and financial burden that comes with the show, which now comes out three times a week. After a vacation, he came back to grateful fan mail: a listener experiencing the death of a loved one, one dealing with PTSD, and one with cancer. Ackerman was reminded of how far the podcast has come, how his pet project for fellow insomniacs has more than 100,000 listeners per episode, makes frequent appearances on the iTunes Top 50 podcast chart, and is listened to in faraway countries like Brazil and Sweden. (There’s even a dedicated, 2,000-member Facebook group for the podcast’s fans).
“If this is helping these three people going through this really difficult time, who am I to give up because it’s getting hard?” he said. “It hit me on a human level: All right, I’ve got to keep going.”
The podcast has impacted Ackerman, too. He flirted with becoming a writer and always enjoyed storytelling but often felt self-conscious about his long windedness or his delight in small, obsessive, details (during our conversation, he interrupted himself: “I’m putting my dog to sleep; she’s yawning.”) But the podcast has made him see the value in those quirks.
“Maybe I have a boring disposition,” he said with a laugh. Sometimes, during recording, he’ll get self-conscious about his ramblings. He has to remind himself: “We’re just making a podcast for people to sleep. Let’s just take a breath and keep going.”
Sometimes he worries: “What if I’m over-developing my boring side? But if that’s a downside, I guess I could live with it.”
Published March 9, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.