I’ve tried counting sheep, mediation, fixed schedules, reading and even the “proven” method of flexing and relaxing all my muscles from my head to my toes. Nothing works. Sleep is an elusive, cruel non-bedfellow. She dances on the edges of my mind, only descending at 2 or 3 am after taunting me relentlessly.
And then came the Unexplained…
It happened by accident. I’d been looking for new ways to spend long airplane rides. As much as I love the uninterrupted reading time of air travel, my head gets foggy and my eyes weary after 5 plus hours of recycled air and nauseating shifts in cabin pressure.
While in the airport, I googled “best podcasts” and picked Unexplained from the list because, well, I secretly love that kind of sh*t. Those silly ghost shows (not Ghost Hunters), but the ones where terrible actors recreate tales of hauntings, I turn them on late at night while everyone else in the house sleeps. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone. They’re my guilty pleasure.
As the plane floated into the mist of white-gray clouds, the hum of an organ trembled up the cord of my headphones, followed by a slow, rhythmic British voice saying, “You’re listening to Unexplained and I’m Richard MacLean [slight pause] Smith.”
MacLean [slight pause] Smith plunged immediately into an introduction including the philosophy around our need for storytelling before gliding into the discussion of other realms.
I woke up to the crackling of the overhead PA and a voice asking to put trays into their upright position. I’d fallen asleep. It’s difficult for me to fall asleep in my own bed and it is impossible for me to fall asleep on an airplane.
Yet the impossible had happened.
Was it the podcast? It had to be. The theory would be tested over the next several weeks. Each night I turned on Unexplained and after 15 to 20 minutes, I drifted off into dreamland.
Right about now, you might be thinking, so the Unexplained podcast must be really boring. It’s not, at all. Not only did it put me to sleep, I loved to listen to it. Sure it took me three days to make it through one episode. But I eagerly pressed play every night.
Relieved to have finally caught the Sandman, I devoured the podcast night after night. Unfortunately, with only three seasons available, soon I reached the end and then came…panic.
What would I do now? Richard MacLean [slight pause] Smith had become a soothing friend in a crisis, a blanket of comfort, which sounds weird considering the odd stories he covers are anything but comforting. Irony not-withstand, the door to dreamland he opened threatened to shut forever.
At first, I decided to listen to it again. If it works, who cares?
But it didn’t. While I lay in bed, the pilot episode repeated and sleep didn’t come. Episode 2 unspooled and sleep stayed away.
Why?? I screamed silently into my pillow.
The answer? The Goldilocks premise. You know the one. This porridge is too hot. This one is too cold. This one is just right. The same premise that allowed humanity to flourish in a perfectly balanced zone around a star.
Unexplained was this perfect combination of soothing music, a hypnotic voice and fascinating storytelling. All important elements, but the key, I realized, were the stories. They had to be compelling enough to stop my mind from wandering away to the thoughts that keep me literally awake at night. Listing my work “to-dos.” Contemplating the storyline of my next book. Writing and rewriting the opening line to Travelers II in my head.
The problem with re-listening to Unexplained was that I was too familiar with the stories. Thus, the magical elixir for my sleep woes stopped working.
I had to find a new podcast.
And so I began the search for a replacement. I decided to listen to episode 1 of a variety of podcasts and see which ones put me to sleep. For my experiment, I sampled a wide variety.
Here are the more interesting podcasts I tried. My rating system includes two criteria: entertainment value and the ability to put me to sleep. Both are evaluated on a scale of one to five emojis. Five being super entertaining or sleep-inducing. After listening to over 20 podcasts, did find one that worked? Read on to find out!
In Search of…The Perfect Podcast for Sleep!
The podcast, narrated by the plucky Wendy Zuckerman, discusses various scientific controversies and takes only one side – the side of facts.
The episode: Fracking
What’s it about: Fracking (that thing where they shove a bunch of water down into the earth to unleash gas and potentially lots of pollution and earthquakes.)
The Problem? Zuckerman’s zeal for uncovering the truth and breaking down all the sides of an argument until it crumbles into pure fact is too emotional and exciting for sleep.
You might think, hey K.L., if you want to sleep, why would you listen to a podcast called “The No Sleep Podcast?” To which I’d say “don’t tell me what to do!” My general, rebellious, buck the system nature wanted to show the makers of this podcast I could take and beat their “no sleep” challenge. Why not? The spooky Unexplained podcast worked for me.
Challenge accepted and challenge failed.
The episode: Nosleep Podcast #1
What’s it about: In the first story, a security guard has a very creepy night. I didn’t get to the second story because I was already too afraid to close my eyes and go to sleep.
Problem? It lives up to its name. The last thing I wanted was to sleep! But it’s a great podcast to listen to during the day with all the lights on.
“Don’t judge me.” That’s basically how I start any conversation where I admit to liking this podcast, in which, as the title describes, hosts Karen and Georgia discuss their favorite murders. The premise sounds awful. Why would anyone want to listen to that? Like the terrible car accident death scene from episode 1, I can’t look away or, in this case, hit pause. I am equal parts horrified by their discussions and enthralled. But I am never, ever sleepy.
The episode: My Firstest Murder
What’s it about: Um. Murder.
The Problem? The show sends me into a tailspin of “what’s wrong with me for liking this so much” guilt, which eliminates any possibility of sleep.
The podcast by Radiotopia discusses the power of design, a topic which sounded compelling enough to keep me interested but not so exciting as to rev up my heart and keep me awake. Plus it has well over 200 episodes, so if it worked, I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a new sleepy podcast for a very long time.
The episode: Noise
What’s it about: Acoustic noise
Problem? I just wasn’t that into it. Boredom does not always equal sleep.
This NPR produced podcast describes itself as follows: “Unseeable forces control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. Invisibilia—Latin for invisible things—fuses narrative storytelling with science that will make you see your own life differently.” The description oozed with potential.
The episode: The Secret History of Thoughts
What’s it about: The relationship between thoughts and inner desires. The hosts use a story of a once kind, passive man who begins to suddenly have violent thoughts after watching a movie to examine the philosophy and science of consciousness.
The Problem? The thought-provoking story and host/music combination didn’t create quite enough atmospheric “darkness” to lull me to sleep. But it was interesting enough that I told my family all about it at dinner the next day.
Comedians Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, who live in Brooklyn, (not Queens as I originally thought) host a live comedy show, turned into a podcast, where they discuss their lives. They also have very funny guests.
The episode: Dad Bods
What’s it about: I honestly don’t even remember the Dad Bod’s portion of the podcast. But I do remember stories of insane New York cab drivers and a stand-up comedian who talked about catcalling. I also remember laughing, like a lot.
The problem: It was way too funny. Laughter is a terrible sleep aid.
This adorable, heartwarming podcast is a welcome relief to the murder, terror and intense psychological stress of most of the other podcasts. Each episode features a half story, half interview-style format describing a real-life love story. It’s, no pun intended, lovely.
The episode: The Run
What’s it about: A man meets the love of his life while running in Central Park and that’s just the beginning.
The problem: This podcast strips away all my anxiety and fills me with pure joy, which should be very conducive to sleep. But with the interviews and changing narrators, it just doesn’t induce a consistent sonically relaxing rhythm.
According to the website, “Disgraceland is a true crime podcast about musicians getting away with murder and behaving very badly.” It’s also a podcast about the darker side of music legends, which features no music or at least no music from said legends. It shouldn’t work. And, at first, it almost doesn’t. But host Jake Brennan is a great storyteller and, eventually, I forgot the podcast about famous music is absent of, well, famous music.
The episode: Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer and Getting Away With Murder
What’s it about: That Dennis Quaid movie didn’t even come close to capturing the insane story of Jerry Lee Lewis.
The problem: The voice + instrumental background music occasionally tips me over into dreamland, but just not consistently. Regardless, it’s one of the podcasts I’ve enjoyed the most during this little experiment.
In an alternate universe version of a small desert community, I believe perhaps in Arizona, a newscaster provides quaint updates on everything from rips in the space-time continuum, menacing clouds, secret police and the weather. It’s the weirdest, coolest thing to ever stream through my tiny earbuds.
The episode: Pilot
What’s it about: Stuff people would call weird is perfectly normal to Night Vale’s resident newscaster, like a forbidden dog park or secret police helicopters roaming the skies.
The Problem: The breathy voice of the newscaster narrator and the odd stories are nearly the perfect blend of hypnotic storytelling. No real problem except for the 5% of the time it strays out of my Goldilocks zone.
The Myths and Legends podcasts tell the real ancient tales, not the versions Disney or Hollywood want us to believe. It relates stories such as King Arthur and his knights and Aladdin in all their weird, random and imperfect glory. Plus, host Jason, can’t help but toss in poignant and often hilarious commentary about the complete lack of sensible character decisions.
The episode: Knights of the Round Table: Yvainglory
What’s it about: Yvainglory, one of Arthur’s knights, abused his power, made terrible decisions, manipulated and used women, killed people for basically no reason and still managed to come out on top. Some things really are eternal…
The Problem: None. The first podcast with its simple background music and quiet storytelling sent me straight to sleep after about 10 minutes but left me eager to finish the story the next day. Since then, it’s been my dreamy companion. And it has 119 episodes and counting…
Podcast Experiment Summary…
Sleepy time winner: Myths and Legends
Runner up: Welcome to Night Vale
Podcasts that hooked me in the first episode and I continue to listen to, even though they don’t put me to sleep: 2 Dope Queens, Disgraceland, My Favorite Murder
Podcasts I enjoy and plan to listen to again: This Is Love, Science Vs
And now excuse me while I slip on my headphones and drift off to the story of the Norse gods…
By the way, if you have any podcast recommendations, sleep-inducing or not, please leave me a recommendation! Or let me know if you listen to any of these as well!