A sleeper hit: The case for borecasts, or boring podcasts - Hindustan Times
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A sleeper hit: The case for borecasts, or boring podcasts

ByNatasha Rego
Mar 02, 2024 05:40 PM IST

They’re designed to be so dull, their listeners can barely stay awake. See what these podcasts are typically about, and how they’re helping the urban insomniac.

It’s the middle of the night. You find yourself wide awake having doomscrolled for hours, your mind racing, thoughts swirling and brain refusing to shut down. Perhaps a bedtime story could help you drift off – something not too riveting, maybe even downright boring.

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In a dark and dreamy corner of the podcasting world are a set of shows that are so boring, they put listeners to sleep. In fact, that’s what show hosts are going for. Where the sounds of falling rain and whistling winds fail, boring podcasts or borecasts are taking over. This new subgenre of sleep podcasts is deliberately dull and positions itself as an antidote to sleepless nights.

Borecast hosts tell boring stories, in monotonous tones, hoping to put listeners to sleep to the drone of their voices. From centuries-old classics such as Moby Dick and Peter Pan and spellbinding Wikipedia entries on anything from cardboard to barristers in England and Wales, to stories that just aren’t interesting enough to keep the sleep-deprived listener awake, borecasts have a variety of themes and topics to choose from.

Sharon Handy, host of the weekly Boring Books for Bedtime, for instance, reads non-fiction, fact-filled texts that are “long enough that my buzzing brain can calm down and shut off”.

She came upon the idea while trying to help her stepson go back to sleep after a nightmare. Black Beauty (1877), the beloved Anna Sewell classic about a beautiful horse, was far too engaging, and it was never much help. So Handy switched over to an old political work Common Sense by Thomas Paine. The 47-page pamphlet was written in 1775-76 advocating for independence from Great Britain and influenced the American Revolution. Not exactly fairytale material. “He fell right to sleep and the idea of my podcast was born!” she says.

Since 2018, Handy has read from titles such as The Voyage of The Bounty to the South Sea: For The Purpose Of Conveying The Bread-Fruit Tree To The West Indies, Including An Account Of The Mutiny On Board The Ship (1792), by William Bligh; Frye’s Practical Candy Maker (1884), by GV Frye, and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), by Robert Louis Stevenson. These centuries-old works aren’t what you would consider particularly easy reading. But they have been surprisingly popular on Handy’s podcast; she’s racked up over 9 million downloads across streaming platforms.

A real snoozefest

Handy, who has a deep interest in literature, science and history, doesn’t always find the content boring herself. She generally picks at random from the website Project Gutenberg, which offers free e-books of works in the public domain.

Ben Boster, host of the I Can’t Sleep podcast, reads Wikipedia entries on subjects such as long-distance calling, HTML, scrum and stainless steel, to put his listeners to sleep. Each is about an hour long, he’s 172 episodes in.

“I often draw inspiration from everyday things that we might take for granted, looking for topics that are ubiquitous, yet overlooked,” he says.

They also come in different styles. Sleep Whispers, hosted by Craig Harris Richard, for instance, also features Wikipedia entries on lucid topics such as dreaming and Alexander Selkirk (the main inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe). But they are read in soft, silky whispers, as a form of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) storytelling.

And Dan Ackerman, the host of Sleep With Me, who’s been has been putting listeners to sleep since 2013, uses “lulling, soothing, creaky, dulcet tones, pointless meanders, and superfluous tangents”. His original stories are narrated in the rambling style of the host character of Dearest Scooter (voiced by Ackerman).

Sample this from an episode titled I Know Dino Crossover: “I get mixed up, I go off topic, I repeat myself, then I’ll go back, then I’ll say, what was I saying?” Ackerman has over 1,000 episodes and around 36,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel where he uploads every episode.

Similarly, in the Nothing Much Happens borecast narrated by yoga and meditation teacher Kathryn Nicolai, not much happens – only meandering beginnings and no dramatic end. Snooze.

So, what about being bored makes us sleepy?

In a paper published in 2017 in the journal Science Communications, Japanese scientists from the University of Tsukuba found that the pleasure centre of the brain also promotes sleep. The nucleus accumbens is where dopamine is produced, and plays a key role in the positive reinforcement between motivation and action. It’s why we seek out food and sex, and is also the part that induces substance abuse such as alcohol and cocaine. When left unstimulated (read bored), it induces sleep.

This is an interesting finding at a time when anxiety and chronic insomnia are on the rise. The sleep disorder market size was valued at over $20 billion in 2022, and is set to grow at the rate of 12% annually over the next ten years.

The borecast as a broadcasting subgenre is not exactly new. The English have been using BBC’s Shipping Forecast to bore themselves to sleep for decades. The notoriously monotonous weather report, that has tracked gales and tides around the British Isles for over 100 years, was broadcast on BBC’s Radio 4, four times a day, until 2022. All one heard, amid static, was maritime jargon such as “Viking, North Utsire, Southwesterly, five to seven. Occasionally gale eight. Rain or showers moderate or good, occasionally poor,” in a dour, stern voice.

With satellite updates and ready storm trackers online, the Shipping Forecast is largely redundant for boats and ships these days. But BBC still continues to air them twice a day on weekdays and thrice on weekends, inadvertently acknowledging that it now functions as a device that gives listeners moments of calm in their day.

Jargon, in fact, is a recurring theme in borecasts.

What’s interesting, though, is that some of today’s borecasts draw on some of yesterday’s cutting-edge bestsellers. A prime example: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which upon release in 1859 sparked feverish debate and censure. It featured this month, on Boring Books for Bedtime. Of course, it might have been considered a handy precursor to the Shipping Forecast even then.

“I think a lot of classics are works people argue about but have never actually read, and they are curious to hear it,” says Handy. So, she gives them a thick, dense slice of it.

Are the borecasters bored too? Sometimes, but one learns a lot, says Boster.

To be sure, Handy adds, “If you need someone to repair a steam-powered farm engine, I think I’m ready!”

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