If you’ve ever struggled to get to sleep, you’ll know how distressing it can be. Staring at the ceiling unable to drift off doesn’t sound like the worst problem in the world – but when it’s 3.30am on a Sunday and you haven’t slept a wink, it can feel catastrophic.
Research has shown that insomnia is on the rise in the UK, with women three times more likely than men to report having trouble sleeping (a staggering 75% of British women told the most recent Great British Sleep Survey that they struggle to nod off at night). Much has been made of the impact on technology on our ability to switch off at the end of the day – but what if your smartphone or laptop could actually be the key to a successful slumber?
Today, more and more people are turning to podcasts to coax them towards dreamland. According to sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley, this is no surprise.
“Children like hearing the same bedtime stories again and again,” he says. “It’s enough to distract them from their worries, but they don’t have to fully concentrate. It’s the same for adults.”
“If you’re listening to the radio or a podcast, you’re not worrying about your mortgage or your relationship or your job,” he continues. “It distracts your brain from the stresses of the day without you having to pay close attention.”
If you’re watching a TV programme or browsing Facebook, Dr Stanley explains, you will be “cognitively aroused”, making it difficult for your brain to switch off. “It’s true that blue light [from screens] is too stimulating,” he says. “But on the most basic level, if you’ve got your eyes open you’re not falling asleep.”
Podcasts and radio programmes, which don’t provide visual stimuli for our brains to try and process, don’t present this problem – allowing us to lose focus and drift off more easily.
However, Dr Stanley explains that not all is created equal when it comes to bedtime listening. “Noise is relevant or alerting if it is meaningful,” he says. “So if you’ve got the Radio 4 news on and suddenly they announce that Donald Trump has fired missiles at Syria, your brain will go, ‘Oh I need to listen to this’.”
If you’re looking to be lulled into a peaceful slumber, it’s better to choose podcasts and programmes that you can listen to without “actively engaging” – in much the same way that children listen to bedtime stories with half an ear.
Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best podcasts and radio programmes available online to help you wind down and nod off. Sweet dreams.
Main image: Rex Features
You Must Remember This
Within the first few seconds of an episode of You Must Remember This, you know you’re about to hear a cracking yarn. The theme tune sounds like it’s straight out of a romantic movie from the 1940s, and host Karina Longworth has a smoky, languorous way of speaking that is both eminently relaxing and perfectly suited to her subject matter: the glamorous women of Old Hollywood.
Longworth, the former film critic for LA Weekly and founder of Cinematical.com, is fascinated by the forgotten histories of 20th century cinema. As a result, each episode of You Must Remember This is dedicated to unpicking mysteries, distinguishing myth from fact, and exploring the impact of individual actors on culture and society.
How did Grace Kelly come to represent a particular image of blonde sexuality in the popular imagination? How did the Manson family infiltrate Hollywood? And how did Isabella Rossellini take her legacy into her own hands in the 1990s? You Must Remember This has all the answers, and then some.
The New Yorker: Fiction
Seriously grown-up bedtime stories. Every month, the New Yorker’s softly-spoken fiction editor Deborah Treisman invites a highly regarded author to choose a short story from the venerable US magazine’s archives. After discussing the story for a few minutes, the author reads it from start to finish.
No story from this podcast is likely to disturb your sleep, but a couple of episodes are particularly worth highlighting. Brooklyn author Colm Tóibín’s deep southern Irish accent, combined with a short story from 1950 by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a quiet delight. Similarly soothing are Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain) reading J. F. Powers, and Joseph O’Neill reading Muriel Spark’s The Ormulu Clock (1960).
Sleep With Me: The Podcast That Puts You To Sleep
“Anytime you see a cheese with like, a lot of syllables, right, that’s when you’re like, hmm. I never thought about this until right now. I just walked in, oh, first of all, what if you just walked into some cheese? Depending on if it’s a soft cheese, that could be a problem. And if you did just walk into any cheese, don’t track it around the house, you’ll definitely get a stern talking to by the homeowner. So don’t do that…”
If you’re struggling to follow the train of thought of the person in the above quote, that’s precisely the point. The Sleep With Me podcast consists of surreal, one- to two-hour-long episodes with titles like ‘Project Platypus’, ‘When Dumplings Fly’ and ‘A View to a Kitten’ (from which the above passage was taken), and each is specifically designed to be so incomprehensible that listeners’ brains simply switch off.
‘Dearest Scooter’, the podcast’s enigmatic, gravelly-voiced narrator (aka Drew Ackerman) is prone to meandering off down narrative dead ends, drifting aimlessly between dull topics and confusing ones, and spending so long explaining something that he ends up mumbling about something else altogether.
Listening to him often feels like sitting through a particularly boring university lecture in a slightly surreal dream – in other words, it’s perfect for sending you to sleep.
Myths and Legends
This popular podcast is surrounded by a mythology all of its own: the show’s researcher, producer and narrator, Jason Weiser, apparently recorded many early episodes while sitting in his car in Syracuse, New York. It’s now a much slicker operation, but the premise remains the same. Weiser selects a folk tale from times gone by, retells it in his own words, then spends some time digging into the story’s history and meaning.
The breadth of stories Weiser covers is extraordinary, from the original versions of well-known parables (Puss in Boots, Oedipus) to obscure and outlandish fairy stories from far-flung corners of the globe. Particularly lovely are his retelling of a Japanese folk tale about a butterfly that lands on a dying man’s face, and a Chilean story about the smartest woman in the world
If there are several different versions of one story in existence, Weiser will occasionally meld them into one cohesive narrative – in keeping with the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, wherein stories were recited, retold and reworked instead of being set down in stone (or ink).
A low-key warning: Weiser’s enthusiastic East Coast accent and habit of inserting casual, contemporary phraseology into ancient stories may grate on some British listeners.
But if you’re used to the rhetorical tics of broadcasters on This American Life and Serial, you’ll relax right into Myths and Legends.
Desert Island Discs
The iconic Desert Island Discs theme tune alone – all gentle classical strings, soft seagull cries and the sound of waves lapping against a distant shore – is enough to transport us into a dreamy state of reverie. (It’s called By the Sleepy Lagoon, for goodness’ sake.) However, not every episode of this long-running BBC Radio 4 radio show, in which notable figures select and discuss their favourite songs, will work before bedtime.
Loud, fast and unfamiliar music is likely to leave you feeling jangled, so avoid the episodes featuring former party animal Davina McCall (who picks nineties club anthem Can You Feel It by Todd Terry as one of her tracks) and Caitlin Moran, who favours Madonna’s Vogue. Instead, dive deep into the Discs archives.
The 1965 Marlene Dietrich episode, in which the legendary actor discusses her life and loves in that smoky purr of a voice, is ideal. Much of the music has been cut, meaning that you won’t be jolted awake by any unexpected change in tempo, and it even features the faint white-noise crackle of a real vintage radio.
Also recommended are the episodes featuring Australian-American concert pianist Hephzibah Menuhin (1958), Welsh actor and playwright Emlyn Williams (1955), and the English conductor Isidore Godfrey (1970).
ASMR Sleep Station
You might already be familiar with the concept of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), or it might be a completely new phenomenon to you. Either way, it’s a seriously big deal on the internet.
In a nutshell, ASMR refers to the sensation of euphoric relaxation experienced by some people when they listen to certain sounds, such as whispering, tapping, hair-brushing and other sensory ‘triggers’. There are literally thousands of ASMR videos on YouTube, often starring pretty, doe-eyed young women whispering conspiratorially into the camera – but given that you shouldn’t be looking at a screen right before bed anyway, we’ll skim over them.
The most popular ASMR podcast is ASMR Sleep Station, which features hour-long episodes that consist solely of a man’s whispering voice, often reading boring Wikipedia pages in their entirety. You’ll either find them transcendently soothing or deeply creepy – but worth a go, eh?
In Our Time
Another gem from BBC Radio 4. The unabashedly cerebral In Our Time been on the air for almost 30 years, and while it certainly wasn’t designed to send listeners to sleep, it’s perfect for putting on just before bed.
Each episode is chaired by plummy-voiced veteran broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, who discusses a different idea, historical figure or event with a rotating cast of solemn experts and academics. One week, the gang might be chatting about the Roman writer Seneca the Younger; another, maths in the early Islamic world; another, the Salem witch trials.
The guests’ extensive knowledge means that every episode is diverting, whether you know anything about the subject matter or not – but they’re slow-paced enough to allow you to tune out without feeling guilty.