My grandmother has trouble getting to sleep. After decades of suffering from bouts of insomnia, a few years ago she was advised to go visit a sleep doctor. The doctor came highly recommended by other medical professionals. He listened to my grandma describe her recurring sleeplessness, and sent her away with pages filled with exercises designed to help her get to sleep. Reading through the exercises, my grandma was shocked to discover that his writing was riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. Next time she went to see the doctor, he asked her if the exercises were helping. “Sort of,” my grandma replied, “but since you don’t know how to spell, I now lie awake wondering if you’re a real doctor.”
That doctor now has a sleep podcast. It’s hardly surprising, since this genre has become such a crowded area that there seems to be no shortage of podcasters trying to help us to get some shut-eye. Sleep podcasts are often referred to as “slow lit” and have seen an explosion in popularity over the last few years.
Sleep podcasts exist somewhere between meditation, bedtime stories and counting sheep.
It’s a peculiar genre: content that is designed not to be listened to, created with the express purpose of boring its audience into unconsciousness. Since most content is made with the in order to capture and hold our attention, it’s pretty revolutionary that the whole aim of this genre is exactly the opposite.
These slow lit podcasts are also an interesting area for brand sponsors: on the one hand, you are reaching consumers when they are relaxed and free from other distractions. On the other, you are sponsoring content that is designed to help them disengage. Brands finding success in this space include household products, meditation apps and, of course, mattress companies. Just make sure you don’t sponsor the end-roll or most of your audience will be fast asleep.
Unfortunately I have inherited some of my grandmother's insomnia. Up until recently, when I had trouble sleeping, my go-to podcast was 99% Invisible. In the early hours of the morning, I would reach for my phone, find an episode in the archive, and lie back to let Roman Mars’s mellow voice put me to sleep. The only problem with that strategy was that many of the stories were too darn interesting, so either I stayed up anxious to learn more, or I fell asleep in the middle and woke up frustrated that I never got to the end of that episode. So instead, I started to explore the world of sleep podcasts. I’ve spent the last month or so trying out some of the most popular podcasts for nodding off. Here’s the rundown on what managed to put me asleep:
Drew Ackerman, the narrator of Sleep With Me, is a former librarian and has personally suffered from bouts of insomnia. The strategy of his podcast is to tell a story that is filled with tangents and non-sequiturs, making the narrative flow impossible to follow. Bizarrely, this podcast is so popular that it has inspired a series of live shows at festivals like PodCon and Vulturefest, where eager fans can gather to fall asleep together.
Fans say: I’ve been listening to this podcast for at least 3 years now. Almost nightly… This podcast has changed my life! (and it’s true what he says—it sounds so bizarre the first couple times but works like a charm from then on)
Haters say: Relaxing? More like annoying and pointless.
Did it put me to sleep? I found all the tangents slightly unnerving, but within 10 minutes I was snoring soundly.
You might already know Phoebe Judge from her podcasts Criminal and This is Love, which made her famous for having one of the smoothest voices in podcasts. Here, she reads mystery novels, chapter by chapter, covering the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Wilkie Collins.
Fans say: I love Phoebe’s voice. This podcast reminded me that I love mysteries. I listen every night before bed. It’s fantastic.
Haters say: Phoebe seems nice and pleasant but she has zero nuance or modulation in her reading voice. Utterly awful.
Did it put me to sleep? I’m one of those scardycats who usually stays away from scary stories before bed, but this had me dozing in no time. However, once I’d nodded off during the first chapter of the story, I didn’t really see the point of going back for the remaining episodes since I would have no idea what was going on!
Sleep Whispers started in 2016, around the time that ASMR was emerging as a dominant internet trend. The show is recited in a whisper and offers listeners a “pot luck” of boring content, with everything from recipes to poems to Wikipedia entries to listener comments.
Fans say: Perfect. It’s the first time anything like this put me to sleep. Finally. Thank you! Please don’t change anything.
Haters say: Possibly the worst idea for a podcast ever. Sounds like a serial killer.
Did it put me to sleep? I found the whispering a bit creepy, so I switched to another podcast after a few minutes.
If these stories aren’t boring enough the first time around, host Kathryn Nicolai repeats them again at a slower pace to make sure to knock you out. Nicolai draws on her experience as a meditation and yoga teacher to build stories that are designed to calm and soothe your racing mind: heavy on description and low on plot. A book of soothing stories based on this podcast is coming out later this year.
Fans say: I love the feeling this podcast provides. It’s not so much about the story as it is about the calm.
Haters say: This podcast makes no apparent sense.
Did it put me to sleep? This was actually my favorite of the lot and had me fast asleep within minutes.
Started by Tom Jones (no, not that one), who himself is no stranger to sleep problems, Get Sleepy is a twice weekly podcast which combines storytelling with sleep meditation techniques. The production team works with sleep experts to draw on different audio cues like relaxing music and ASMR triggers, to make sure that every episode is designed to help listeners fall asleep.
Fans say: This podcast is an absolute lifesaver. I find it is the only thing that can help me switch off when my mind won’t - thank you!
Haters say: Annoying, the reader’s delivery is jerky and unsoothing
Did it put me to sleep? I appreciated the British accent but found that this one didn’t do the trick for me
Over the course of my experiments with these sleep podcasts, I picked up some little tricks to help make this content even more effective for getting to sleep. Now you have the lowdown on what to listen to, here are some tried and tested tips on how to listen to sleep podcasts:
- Make the volume faint enough that you have to strain slightly in order to hear it.
- If you are sharing your room or bed with someone else, you can either place your phone beneath your pillow or buy some flat speakers designed precisely for this purpose to avoid disturbing those around you.
- Use the sleep timer on your phone, but don't be overly optimistic about when you think you’ll nod off - there’s nothing more annoying than setting the timer for 15 minutes then realising after the podcast shuts off that you are more awake than ever.
- Rather than using your fancy smartphone, take out that iPod Mini you have languishing at the back of some drawer somewhere, and load it just with sleep podcasts. This means that you won’t be distracted with all of your phone’s other apps, and that you won’t be discouraged by seeing the time beaming out at you from your phone’s lock screen.
So the next time you have difficulties getting to sleep, remember that there are countless podcasters out there that would be happy to help you to nod off.