Struggling to sleep at night? ‘Sleepcasts’ are the latest thriving trend in the wellness industry, and might be the solution you need
‘Sleepcasts’ are a growing niche of podcast shows that cater to “frustrated insomniacs”
Benjamin Boster was driving in a car with his boss, trying to relay an exciting anecdote, when he discovered that his main talent as a storyteller lies elsewhere.
“He was like, ‘Ben, I’m sorry, your voice is so soothing that I just kind of fell asleep,’” recalls Boster, a 42-year-old father of three.
Rather than take it as an insult, Boster, a salesman for a tech company in Salt Lake City, Utah, sensed a market opportunity. So in 2019, he created the I Can’t Sleep podcast, in which he employs his baritone voice to read Wikipedia entries for subjects as riveting as “cardboard,” “logistics” or “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”
“I bore you to sleep with my soothing voice,” he explains.
Boster’s show is one of a growing number of ‘sleepcasts’ designed to calm the minds of frustrated insomniacs. Alongside indie podcasts like his, tech companies such as Headspace, Peloton Interactive, and Fitbit, have also entered the bedtime audio programming space. Collectively, these shows are pioneering a sort of inattention economy that reaches millions of late-night listeners every month.
While the shows are still small in terms of revenue, they're nonetheless helping transform the sleep sector — once dominated by mattress makers and medicines like melatonin and Ambien — into a central pillar, along with fitness and nutrition, of what McKinsey & Co. considers a $1.5 trillion (€1.4 trillion) global wellness market.
“Half of consumers around the world reported a desire for more products and services to meet the need for higher-quality slumber,” McKinsey concluded in a 2021 report, which found the overall wellness market expanding as much as 10 per cent a year.
The boom in sleep services comes at a moment in which millions of people are struggling to balance the demand for ever-greater productivity with the fact that sleep is a crucial component of mental and physical health.
Even before the pandemic, health experts warned that societies need to get more rest. In 2016, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a third of US adults are sleep deprived, raising the risk of car crashes, heart disease and mistakes on the job. The Covid-19 era made matters worse for many, heightening anxiety and stress levels to the point that it became even harder to fall and stay asleep, according to several studies.
The problem is especially acute for the 30 per cent or so of people — including many teenagers — regarded as night owls. Despite a genetic disposition to be productive later in the day, they’re often forced to rise early, which can fuel sleep deficits and put them at higher risk of mood disorders and substance abuse, according to studies.
After decades as director of the child and adolescent sleep clinic at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, Michael Gradisar took a job last year as head of sleep science at Swedish software company Sleep Cycle. He recognised that the market for sleep wellness was growing quickly and wanted to ensure that the industry remains as close as possible to the latest science, he said.
Simply falling asleep is the most common challenge people face, according to Gradisar. The classic case of the troubled sleeper is the person who lies awake thinking about everything and nothing. After a while, they might look at the clock and start fretting that they won’t get enough sleep, which just makes things worse. The key is to recognise what’s happening and know how to deal with it, Gradisar says. “You can’t shut it off like a light switch,” he says. “I tell people you can try to turn it down like a dimmer switch. One way to do that is to try to distract yourself from those worries.”
Like many of its competitors, Sleep Cycle’s app offers audio programming to do just that, including guided meditations and long, meandering stories told by celebrities such as heartthrob Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. “My wife loves him whispering in her ear at night when she falls asleep,” Gradisar muses. “And I’m not jealous at all.”
While Sleep Cycle offers bedtime fictions, others prefer to stick with the facts — particularly dry ones. Each week on her 45-minute Boring Books For Bedtime podcast, Florida-based Sharon Handy, who by day designs content for science and children’s museums, reads from public-domain works of history, science and philosophy as dreamy music plays in the background.
She got the idea after her stepson asked her to read something a little less fun than the novel Black Beauty to put him to sleep. Her solution: Thomas Paine's 18th-century pamphlet Common Sense. These days, Handy typically gets about 10,500 downloads for each new episode, and 260,000 total monthly plays. Last month, on the eve of US Tax Day, she soothed listeners’ nerves by intoning passages from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.
Repetition is a popular strategy within the genre. On a recent episode of Drew Ackerman’s Sleep With Me podcast, the upbeat host described his job as such: “I’m here to be your bore friend, your bore bae, your bore sib, your bore bud, your bore bestie,” he said. “Your friend in the deep dark night. Keep you company while you drift off. But if you can’t sleep, I’m here to keep you company, too.”
Ackerman’s podcast, which gets about three million plays each month across its archive of 600 shows, carries echoes of talk-radio, which used to be the only thing that would help him fall asleep. Toby Baier takes a similar approach on his German-language Einschlafen Podcast which for 13 years has bored listeners with long digressions on everything from a Hamburg soccer team to his periodic viral infections to — quite often — the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.
For long-suffering insomniacs, finding the right show can make the difference between hours of tossing and turning and a good night’s rest. On internet forums like Reddit, listeners debate the pluses and minuses of various podcasts — for instance, whether a host’s voice is soporific enough or if a programme suffers from drifting into the realm of engaging.
James Ward has put a lot of thought into the blurry line between boring and interesting. That tension is at the heart of his annual Boring Conference in London, which people keep attending despite his warnings that it’s a complete waste of their time and money. Past speakers have included a man named Peter Fletcher, who’s counted and documented all of his sneezes since 2007.
In 2018, Ward launched his own BBC Radio podcast, The Boring Talks which for three years plumbed subjects such as pencils or lampposts that he described as “very interesting… maybe.”
Ward's goal wasn’t to put his listeners to sleep, though he didn’t mind if that was the outcome. For his own bedtime needs, Ward enjoys listening to foreign language radio shows, which allow him to follow the cadences of speech without getting distracted by meaning. He’s not surprised by the fact that boring podcasts are getting popular.
“We live in a world that’s tragically not boring,” he explains. “Lots of people would like a world that’s actually a bit more boring and you weren’t constantly just doom-scrolling the news, thinking, ‘Oh God, what now?’”
Which brings us back to Boster, the man who bored his boss to sleep. He always knew he had a gift when it came to his voice. At Brigham Young University, where he got both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance, he’d often skip big football games on campus to attend opera rehearsals or shows. It was only after realising that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life pursuing a stage career that he became a salesman.
But he never fully gave up on his dreams of show business. Not long after that fateful car ride, he watched an episode of the sitcom Parks and Recreation in which one of the characters goes on a farcically dull public radio programme called Thoughts For Your Thoughts.
“I was like, ‘Oh crap, maybe I could try this. I’m already boring people to sleep, maybe I just use the radio,’” he recalls.
For his first episode in February 2019, Boster spent about 10 minutes reading the Wikipedia entry for ‘gilet’ which is, he explained, “a sleeveless jacket resembling a waistcoat or blouse.” He got four listeners, and was excited. Over the coming year, he gained a loyal following, averaging about 15,000 total plays a month. And then the pandemic hit. Before long, his audience jumped by more than a factor of 10.
“I remember people writing to me and saying, ‘I live alone in France, and your voice just kept me going when no one else was around,’” he recalls. He also got heartfelt notes from people struggling with post-traumatic stress and anger management issues who were finally managing to fall asleep.
Among his most loyal listeners is a seven-year-old Vermont girl named Lilly who, according to her grandma, has fallen asleep to Boster's show every night for three years. “She calls me the man with the voice,” he says.
For now, the show relies on donations and revenue from ads, which play at the start of each episode so as not to startle listeners awake. Fans can also pay $3 (€2.80) a month to get an ad-free experience. Boster still has his day job, but he is considering ways to scale up.
He’s ruled out one thing, though: bringing experts on his show: “People don’t come here to hear about how sleep works,” he explains. “They come here to sleep.”