The world’s “most boring podcast” brings in three million listens per month and has been Drew Ackerman’s full-time job for the last three-and-a-half years.
Sleep With Me is a podcast that helps people fall asleep. Ackerman recites bumbling bedtime stories to audiences two times a week, inspired by his own troubles with falling asleep and a funny shtick he had with his friends as a young adult. “I would get asked to share bedtime stories,” he says. “I would tell them to people when we were hanging out at a park or camping. I was always a goofy rambler.”
But it took years before he decided to turn it into a podcast. He was a longtime listener, streaming audio broadcasts long before there were RSS aggregates like iTunes or Spotify.
“I would listen directly from RSS feeds […] and I remember being blown away,” he says. This included people experimenting with the medium and uploading audio files that had random conversations and idea sharing. “There were podcasts about everything—people were just talking about their love of particular subjects. It was so different,” says Ackerman.
Working as a librarian, he was fueled by creative side-projects. He dedicated time on a weekly basis to write for a YouTube show, but always wondered if he would be better off putting his creative energy into starting a podcast. He says his internal critic held him back, until the YouTube project stopped being fun.
“The day we stopped, I just decided to start the podcast. I started by going on YouTube and reading blog articles about how to edit audio,” he says. One of the biggest pieces of advice he gleaned about releasing was to just put things out there. So in October 2013, he launched the first episode of Sleep With Me.
The podcast never had one moment where it blew up. Rather, Ackerman says he grew his audiences slowly year-over-year. He credits the success to consistency.
For the first six months, there were a handful of listeners and Ackerman kept asking for feedback and encouraging his listeners to share. The podcast never had one moment where it blew up. Rather, Ackerman says he grew his audiences slowly year-over-year. He credits the success to consistency. “At first, the only goal I had was ‘just make this for two years and see what happens and not worry about anything else’,” he says.
At that point, he didn’t have enough listeners to pay himself, but thought that if he could raise enough money to hire an editor, he could sustainably keep going. He kept his job at the library and started asking for donations through Patreon. It worked.
As the podcast audience continued to steadily grow, he toyed with the idea of quitting his full-time job. Then, he got some advice from an advisor who worked with artists. She told him one of two things will happen: he will either get fired or make a plan and quit. Ackerman says this is what crystallized it for him. “So, I chose to come up with a plan.”
Looking back, he says he spent the first two years building the foundation and the next two years preparing to make the transition.
To this day, he still funds himself through his Patreon. “Sponsors, even up until the last year and a half, were hesitant. That [funding] jumps up and down. Patreon moves up slower but decreases slower,” he says. Ackerman adds that money from sponsors acts as an emergency fund or a bonus. He also sells merchandise but it’s more of a fun thing for his audiences. “It’s different for every producer. Sometimes merch really works and Patreon doesn’t. Sometimes signing sponsors is easy.” Ackerman’s advice for podcasters who are looking to monetize is to try different combinations of things like Patreon, sponsors, and merchandise. “You never know what your audience will respond to.”
Ackerman says he looks to his audience a lot because they’re the boss. “I think treating every listener as important, is important. Like you’re talking to one person,” he says.
His team right now includes two freelance editors and a transcriptionist. From day one until now, he has recorded in what he calls his “Harry Potter closet”—a small room underneath his stairs with blankets and old curtains on the walls.
“Inside is just the mic stand and a Shure Beta 87A that goes into a preamp and digital recorder. That’s all I can fit in there. I couldn’t even record into a laptop.”
At any given time, Ackerman has about 12 to 18 different episodes in the making. “I have gotten where I like to have a very long lead time. I record episodes that won’t come out for a few months. Then I can curate the releases,” he says.
He releases episodes on Wednesdays and Sundays. “Sunday has always been important to me—it’s the most stressful night of the week. You know Monday is coming,” he says. And then Wednesdays were chosen so as to provide fresh content mid-way through the week.
When it comes to advice for new podcasters, Ackerman says to pursue niche topics that you’re passionate about. “You definitely have to find that nutrition that fills you up, besides the listeners or money. When it comes down to it, you’re alone and you need to get to work,” he says. “The positive side of the internet is that you can discover small communities and if you have an interest, there is always a community of people who share that interest or value and want to hear more about it.”
He also says the benefits of starting a podcast go far beyond the tangible elements. “You don’t have to do a podcast full-time to be successful. You will see intangibles—your interpersonal skills, your job skills…it could change your value system.”
Looking ahead, Ackerman is curious about how the podcasting landscape will change in the next five or 10 years. He wonders whether the medium will continue to creatively evolve or become somewhat stale. “And if it did become stale, would I be aware of it first, or would the listeners?”
In the more foreseeable future, he is interested in the international podcast space and how he might scale Sleep With Me in different languages. “I love making the show,” he says. “A lot of times podcasts can be a grind. I’m lucky to do a show I like.”