Sep 25, 2020

Insomnia Line

Coronasomnia is a not-so-surprising side-effect of the global pandemic. More and more of us are having trouble falling asleep. We wanted to find a way to get inside that nighttime world, to see why people are awake and what they are thinking about.

So what’d Radiolab decide to do? 

Open up the phone lines and talk to you.

We created an insomnia hotline and on this week’s experimental episode, we stayed up all night, taking hundreds of calls, spilling secrets, and at long last, watching the sunrise peek through.  

This episode was produced by Lulu Miller with Rachael Cusick, Tracie Hunte, Tobin Low, Sarah Qari, Molly Webster, Pat Walters, Shima Oliaee, and Jonny Moens.

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Jad: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad. This is a Radiolab. I want to start off with some good news about the show as most of you know, my longtime cohost, co-conspirator, pal, Robert Krulwich left the show back in January. A few things are immediately clear. One, he's irreplaceable. There's no other Robert, but simultaneously it was also clear that over the years, the show has grown to be way more than just the Robert-Jad situation. We now have all of these reporters and producers who you hear on the show all the time. It's much more of a collective. And so, In the spirit of doing something new, rather than trying to recapture the old and in keeping with that chaotic more collective vibe that the show has now become, here's my news. Going forward, I'm still going to be hosting the show, of course, but I will be sharing this space on again, off again with two new co-hosts.

Latif: Hello, everybody for the first time.

Lulu: Hi, there.

Jad: who aren't actually new.

Lulu: Good to see you.

Jad: Latif Nasser and Lulu Miller.

Lulu: Jad, are you having cold feet about welcoming us to the fire of the microphone?

Jad: No! So excited. I remember when we were planning this whole thing out, I actually got them into the studio just to sort of to talk about the emotional issues of being a Radiolab host.

Latif: It's a syndrome

Jad: Actually, it's a pathology.

Latif: Stockholm syndrome.

Jad: Called Hosting.

Latif: There you go. Welcome.

Lulu: Thanks.

Jad: Latif, of course, you've heard on the show over and over again, including most recently the series, The Other Latif. On top of that, he just released a Netflix show called Connected, which is very cool. Go check it out. And then Lulu actually started with me on the show like 15, some years ago when it was just a tiny little operation. And she’s is now back with us after having gone off and co-founded the podcast Invisibilia, written this incredible book, Why Fish Don't Exist that made me cry. Now you will be hearing Lulu and Latif talking to me, bringing their own stories to the show as always, but also talking to our usual incredible lineup of producers and reporters.

Lulu: What I'm really excited about is getting to go along with all these different reporters.

Latif: It's like someone else has reported this story and then we get to like circle and draw some arrows.

Jad: Circles and arrows

Latif: We're good at that. That's our only strength. We can do that.

Jad: Just humor me, introduce yourselves in this new role just to see how it goes.

Lulu: I am Lulu Miller, cohost of Radiolab.

Latif: I'm not sure how the words are going to come out of the mouth here, but let me try them. All right. I'm Latif Nasser, cohost of Radiolab.

Jad: How'd that feel?

Lulu: I'll tell you very acutely. What it felt for me was like, I hope I don't screw it up between the time I said that, and the time this goes to air. Anything can happen between them. I hope I don't mess it up.

Jad: Lulu?

Lulu: I was going like that so you could fit 'em so you can see a little -- [crosstalk] It feels very, very special. Don't make me put words to it.

Speaker 2: Fair enough.

Jad: Let me just say that I can't even express in words how excited I am to be sharing this space with these two brilliant, strange, deep thinking, deep feeling humans. Having them with us as we head into this, the end of a very strange year and take on whatever comes next. It just feels right to me and really exciting. Now, at this moment in time Latif is actually still finishing up his paternity leave, he had his second kid just recently so he's hunkered down at home with a newborn, but Lulu actually jumped into the saddle with us here at Radiolab a few weeks ago and after hanging around and climbing into a bunch of conversations and arguments and meetings, she, well she ended up bringing a little something for all of you today. It's an experiment, sort of. Definitely something we've never done before so we're just going to dive in.

Okay, Lulu, welcome. This is the first time-

Lulu: Hi.

Jad: - that you and I in our new relationship to one another. It's the first time we do this. Where do you want to start?

Lulu: I think it was about a week ago. I think it was about a week and a half ago where we all had a pitch meeting. It was my second week, maybe, here on the team just trying to get my bearings and step in. And I brought up how I'd been having trouble sleeping back in the spring and I noticed pretty quickly that I was one in this wave. There had been all these studies coming out about how insomnia is on the rise and it turned out a ton of people on the team had been thinking about similar stuff. This shadow epidemic of anxiety and sleeplessness, wishing there was a way to tap directly into that space. And within literally a couple of minutes, we hatched this idea of setting up an insomnia line. Let people call in and we thought we just have the phones open from 2:00 AM to sunrise Eastern Standard Time.

Jad: Wow. You went all the way from 2:00 AM to sunrise?

Lulu: Yes. We chose a night which was last Thursday night, September 17th. And you know the night we picked at this point seems like a totally different world. It was the night before RBG died and about a week before the Breonna Taylor ruling. This new wave of hardship wasn't in the area for us or our callers but at 1:45 AM we tweeted out the phone number and said, "If you're awake, call us."

Speaker 1: What's up Radiolab. I'm in Los Angeles, California. I have insomnia.

Lulu: Then the voicemails started rolling in.

Jad: Uh, like right away?

Lulu: Yes so like 2:00 AM struck.

Speaker 2: Hey Radiolab. First-time listener. Long-time listener, first-time caller.

Lulu: There were like 40 right off the bat just waiting.

Jad: Whoa.

Lulu: It was like this immediate cross-section-

Speaker 3: Here laying in my bed with my dog.

Lulu: -of the country and even beyond-

Speaker 4: It's 1:41 in the morning here in Mexico City.

Lulu: -of just like intensity. I mean think the thing we all realized really quick was that we were sticking out this antenna into a really vulnerable time.

Speaker 5: Hi, my name is Kendra. I'm calling from Denver, Colorado and I can't sleep because I miss my mom. She passed away earlier this year and I miss her every single day.

Speaker 6: I'm up because I quit drinking a few weeks ago and-

Speaker 7: I am currently walking circles around my apartment.

Speaker 6: I really want to drink again.

Speaker 8: I can hear the clock ticking.

Speaker 9: All the days are just running together right now.

Speaker 8: I can hear the fan spinning.

Speaker 9: Just swimming through time soup.

Lulu: People were worried. They were worried about COVID.

Speaker 10: I'm a nurse in the time of COVID and so I don't sleep anymore.

Lulu: About their jobs.

Speaker 11: I lost my job in March thanks to COVID. I was teaching English as a foreign language.

Speaker 12: Today and tomorrow too I have another job interview.

Speaker 13: I don't have a job lined up. I don't tell anyone about this. You know, wake up every night like this.

Lulu: About the state of the country.

Speaker 14: With everything that is happening with the racism, yeah, as a woman, yes, it's complicated. I'm considering moving maybe to Costa Rica or Dominican Republic or even going back to Puerto Rico.

Speaker 15: You know how you breathe out and your lungs squeak a little bit?

Lulu: From the West Coast there was just tons about the smoky sky.

Speaker 16: My house has smelled like an ashtray for days.

Speaker 17: It's been really hazy and smoky, and kind of always smells like toast.

Speaker 18: As a person who used the ventilator, I could feel chest discomfort after [unintelligible 00:09:54] all this smoke for over a week.

Speaker 19: But there's a fun twist right now which is — Let me see if I can go outside, actually.

Lulu: But some places it had rained.

Lulu: But now there is thunder and torrential rain. Wow, that was a bright flash.

Lulu: But, you know, for all the worry, there was another side to the night.

Ricky: Ayo, Radiolab, man name is Ricky and I'm just vibing right now. Even though I'm tired, I just want to stay up just because all of the other hours work for somebody else whose working. And I guess I want those one two three hours to be mine.

Speaker 21: I'm not totally sure why I'm awake but I started drawing and now I think I maybe don't want to go back to sleep.

Lulu: All these people just weaning into their weird thoughts.

Speaker 22: The big thing I'm thinking about today is that I learned that horse treadmills exist.

Speaker 23: You imagine you have a building which is mushrooming with mushrooms, literally, and in the morning when you wake up, instead of plucking your fruits from the garden you're actually plucking mushrooms from your building. It's just great to think that maybe one day we can have a building which will give us food.

Lulu: Throughout the whole night that line between reality and fantasy was thin.

Speaker 24: I've been having really weird dreams.

Speaker 25: Yes, I have nightmares. Terrible dreams.

Speaker 26: It was like little baby fox that died and we were trying to have a funeral for it.

Speaker 27:  A Few minutes ago I had to break up a fight between a couple of raccoons outside.

Speaker 28: There are monsters chasing me.

Speaker 29: My cat is sitting on my neck.

Speaker 30: I'm on the planet Califrax, about 73 light-years from Earth.


Speaker 31: Right now I'm looking at Mars from my backyard. I can see it just by looking at the sky. It's particularly red.

Speaker 32: I would very much love to fall asleep but I can't.

Speaker 33: Yes, I can't sleep.

Lulu: All told, there are over 200 calls and if anything came through loud and clear it was that during those hours, people feel really alone.

Speaker 34: I'm alone and I'm scared.

[bells ringing]

Speaker 35: If you want to call me back, I'm at 817.

Speaker 36: Feel free to give me a call back. The number is-

Speaker 37: Whatever you need call back.

Speaker 38: I might be awake for a while longer.

Jad: Coming up, conversations across the void, and a trip to the stars. Radiolab will continue in a moment.

Blake: Howdy, this is Blake Crozier from Nashville, Tennessee. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at

Speaker 39: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

Jad: Hey this is Jad. Radiolab is supported by Vast. Vast is a global leader in cybersecurity trusted by over 435 million users. Vast has privacy solutions to keep your identity and actions hidden, security solution to stop malware, fishing and virus attacks, and performance enhancing solutions to clean up and speed up your devices. Vast empowers you to feel safer, private and more confident online. To do what you want to do in your connected life, shop, work, browse confidently on all of your devices. Learn more about Vast privacy, security and performance products at vast dot com.


Jad: Whether you’re debuting a new Gonads podcast series or launching a new start-up, making big announcements can be daunting. When the stakes are high and attention spans are low your messaging has to be as powerful and eye-catching as possible. [14.22]

Jad: This is Radiolab, we are back. I'm Jad Abumrad.

Lulu: And I am your co-host, Lulu Miller.

Jad: Yes.

Lulu: And interestingly enough-

Latif: Hey, it's Latif calling in the bathroom. I'm actually calling in the bathroom because I want to wake the baby.

Lulu: At 2:47 AM on the insomnia line. We got a call from our other co-host, Latif Nasser.

Latif: I wanted to share a little factoid that I discovered.

Lulu: Being very, very Latif.

Latif: Which was that in 1939. There was a ship, a P-class destroyer called the HMS Porcupine. And it broke into two pieces and then they named the pieces, the HMS pork, and the HMS pine, which was just incredible. [giggles] 

Lulu: Anyway, back to the mission at hand, a bunch of Radiolabers had all gathered to man the phones and screen the voicemails and 2:00 AM hit and-

Tracie: There's voicemails. There's voicemails already.

Shima Okay, so yes.

Lulu: We started calling people back. Here we go.

Shima: Who's there?

Shima: Shima Oliaee

Kwadwo Adae: Hello.

Shima: Hey, this is Shima calling from Radiolab. What's your name?

Kwadwo: My name is Kwadwo Adae

Shima: Where are you?

Kwadwo: I'm in New Haven, Connecticut. I'm on Facet Street. And I have been commissioned by the city to make the city's first Black Lives Matter mural. I'm sketching out the words, which are 22 by 277 feet in total. Then on Sunday, people are going to come and take some yellow paint. I'm going to orchestrate them to fill in the letters.

Shima: Is there a reason that you have to do this mural at 3:30 in the morning?


It's 3:30 where you are right?

Kwadwo: It's 3:30 in the morning? Yes. The city of New Haven commissioned me to make this mural. They are only closing the street from 6:00 AM on Saturday to 9:00 PM. I told them, "This is a pavement mural, you need to close the street so I can sketch it out and make sure that there's enough drying time after we paint." They're like, "Well, we can't do that."

Shima: In your sketch, are there people in this mural? Or is it just the letters themselves?

Kwadwo: It's just the words Black Lives Matter in yellow paint. I was conflicted with this message because I would rather be painting flowers or painting people. But like having to paint this, it's been really tough.

Shima: Why?

Kwadwo: It's tough to be reminded. I have to remind others of your own humanity. That's difficult for me. I don't know how much we're doing in terms of a city to make it so that I don't have to paint this mural again.


[phone ringing]

Alex: Good morning. This is Alex.

Sarah: Hi, Alex. This is Sarah calling from Radiolab.

Shima: Next producer Sarah Qari.

Sarah: It seems like you might have called a while ago.

Alex: I wake up at that time because that's when rodents tend to be most active. I work in Boston, so there’s plenty of rodents to be hunt.

Sarah: Umm you're an exterminator?

Alex: Yes. That's what most people call us. We have that names for ourselves. I usually wake up at 2:00 AM, drive into the city and start chasing rats.


Sarah: All right, take care. Have a good rest of your night, morning.

Alex: You too. Have a great rest of your day.

Sarah: You too.

Alex: Thank you. Bye.

[phone ringing]

Bobby: Who's there?

Molly: Is this Bobby?

Bobby: Yes.

Shima: Then Molly Webster.

Molly: Bobby, it's Molly Webster from Radiolab. How are you?

Bobby: I'm amazing. I'm looking out over at Brighton Beach Ocean. I'm on my terrace with my trees and my plant.

Molly: Can you tell me either why you're awake or if something's keeping you awake?

Bobby: I've always been an insomnia person since I was a little kid. I'd sneak out of the house. When I was a teenager, like 13, 14 and I'd go wander out on the beach at night in the midnight and sing to the ocean and see what I can see. I'm here on the 18th floor.

Molly: Okay.

Bobby: Overlooking, over there that's a Rockaway.

Molly: Is that the ocean that I can hear in the background or wind?

Bobby: Well, I don't know. It might be traffic but the ocean's out there. Anyway, it’s a beautiful night. What a great life I have. How blessed we are.

[phone ringing]

Azul: Hi.

Molly: Hi is this Azul?

Azul: Yes, this is her. Hello?

Molly: Tell me where you're at and why you're awake.

Azul: I am in Portland, Oregon and I am awake because we are about to embark on a little road trip all the way to Minnesota to get away from the smoke, from the fires. I hear that the sky's still blue in other places so I'm really excited.

Molly: What is it like to live without a sky?

Azul: Honestly, it’s pretty trippy. It feels like I live either in an Instagram sepia filter or something like that.

Molly: Are there other ways in which the world looks or feels or sounds different because of the fires?

Azul: Friday was one of the toughest days. All the birds just stopped showing up or singing. It was really quiet.

[phone ringing]

Speaker 40: Today, I think was the first day of actual fresh air, so I've just been sitting outside and breathing that in while it lasts.

Tobin: Where am I reaching you right now? Where are you?

Molly: Producer Tobin Low.

Speaker 40: I am in the Bay Area in Northern California . I’m standing in my yard. Just to come outside and be reminded that there's still life out here, to hear the crickets, it's really beautiful. It's like gleeful insomnia.

Tobin: Can you take a deep breath for me and sort of describe what that feels like now that the air is clear?

Speaker 40: [deep breath] It feels freeing.

[phone ringing]

Tracie: Hi!

Lulu: Reporter Tracie Hunte.

Maya: Hi. How are you?

Lulu: Speaking with a woman named Maya.

Tracie: I'm okay. I'm okay. Where are you?

Maya: I'm calling from Westchester, New York.

Tracie: And why are you awake?

Maya: I'm a college student right now. Homework till one, active brain till four. [chuckles] It feels like so much is going on. It feels like doom and gloom all day long. There's no light at the end of the tunnel.

Tracie: Have you like thought about calling your friend when you're up this late? Another friend that you know might be having trouble sleeping?

Maya: No, not actually. Well, I called you guys.

Tracie: Yes. [laughs] I know. That’s kind of why I asked the question.

Maya: It’s something I always do during the day, but never that I think do at night when I know we're all feeling this way.

Tracie: Maya, can I pass on a tip that I learned recently for falling asleep?

Maya: I would love one.

Tracie: Okay. Why don't you try, when you're lying in bed, try thinking of a letter. An easy one like an M or a B or something. Then think of every word you can make with that letter and just see if you can bore yourself to sleep.

Maya: [chuckles] Modern day of counting sheep.

Tracie: It’s kind of like counting sheep. I'm going to give you a letter. Think of the letter “L.”

Maya: Sure yes: Lilipad, light, lab, labradoodle, lampoon, land.

Lulu: This was something we did do from time to time. Though we knew we probably couldn't help much, we would give people little offerings that we hoped might at least change their mindset. Okay, I'll just tell you one last.

Jad: Yes, please.

[phone ringing]

Lulu: Hey, is this Tristan?

Tristan: Yes, speaking.

Lulu: I'm sorry that sleep is eluding you.

Tristan: [chuckles] Yes.

Lulu: Yes, can you just say again where you are and and why you're awake?

Tristan: I'm in Detroit and I'm in my bed that half the time has doubled now as a workspace. It's been really troubling separating work from personal life, and whole days go by that are just one contiguous.

Lulu: [sighs]

Tristan: It feels like, just trapped, I guess.

Lulu: May I offer you a sonic gift, to maybe try a different thing, and see if it helps?

Tristan: Sure, yes. You can do that.

Lulu: Can you stay on the phone, but can you get all those screens away from you?

Tristan: [laughs] Yes, I can close that and move that out of the way.

Lulu: All right. I'm going to pipe in a special [phone ringing] guest, guests, multiple.

West: Hey, can you hear us?

Tristan: Yes, I can. Hey, I'm Tristan. Nice to meet you.

West: Hey, nice to meet you.

Kelley: Hi.

Lulu: Musicians, Wes Swing and Kelley Libby from Virginia.

West: We've got a song to play here. The song is called Middle of the Night.

Tristan: [laughs] Wow.

West: All right, here it goes.

[music playing]

Jad: They just called up and sang? How did they-

Lulu: I asked them if they would be willing to sing a lullaby to someone who couldn't sleep-

Jad: Oh, I see.

Lulu: -and they gave me a window that they would be able to get up and do it.

Jad: Oh, I see. That was nice. I like that.

Lulu: Yes, and to end this whole thing.

Tristan: Thank you.

Kelley: Bye.

Lulu: This whole sleepless-

Speaker: [breath]

Lulu: -anxious nighttime experiment.

Speaker: I'm just tired, and I want to go back to sleep.

Lulu: I want to leave everyone with one more of these offerings, coming from the producer, Annie McEwen.

Fletcher Lee Johnson: Hello.

Annie: Hi. I can just see the very top of your head.

Fletcher: Yes.

Annie: Fletcher, hold on a second for me. Can you hear me?

Fletcher: Yes.

Annie: Good to meet you.

Fletcher: Good to meet you.

Annie: First of all, I want you to introduce yourself. Tell me, what is your name?

Fletcher: What's my name, mommy?

Elaine Boyd: You know what your name is.

Fletcher: Oh, Fletcher.

Annie: [chuckles] Fletcher, such a good name. What's your last name?

Fletcher: My full name is Fletcher Lee Johnson. We live in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Annie: How old are you?

Fletcher: I'm five.

Annie: I wanted to talk to you about sleep. Do you have trouble falling asleep?

Fletcher: Yes, every night, it takes a long time until I get to sleep.

Annie: Why is that? What are you thinking when you're trying to fall asleep?

Fletcher: I'm not thinking of anything. I just really have a lot of energy to stay up at night.

Annie: What would you rather do? What does your body want to do when you're trying to keep it still?

Fletcher: I like to have a dance party, but one night we did that.

Annie: [gasps] You did?

Fletcher: Yes. I just like to have dance parties every night, but I can't.

Annie: [laughs] What do your pajamas look like?

Fletcher: Glow-in-the-dark PJs.

Annie: Glow-in-the-dark PJs?

Fletcher: Yes.

Annie: That's cool.

Fletcher: It's one of my old ones. When I was four, I had a glowing skeleton one that matches where my bones are and now I have bought a new one for a five-year-old.

Annie: Yesterday, on the phone, we talked a little bit about how you dream about monsters.

Fletcher: Oh, I dream about monsters every night.

Annie: What are these monsters? Tell me about them.

Fletcher: So like, blobby boxing monsters.

Annie: Okay.

Fletcher: There's a lot of other ones that are really scary.

Annie: Is it hard to fall asleep because of the monsters?

Fletcher: Yes, because they're really too scary, so I have to wake up.

Annie: I have that problem too. It's hard to fall asleep when you're afraid of things. Fletcher, I want to ask your advice about something. Tonight we're going to have a lot of people call in to our radio show and they're going to be people who can't fall asleep and they're trying and trying and trying, but they just can't. And they're so tired, but they can't fall asleep. I want to know, what advice do you have for them? What do you think they should do?

Fletcher: I was going to sing to them my meditation.

Annie: Okay. That’s a good idea. Do you want to read me your meditation? Do you want to try doing that?

Fletcher: Yes, I guess so.

Annie: Then we can play it tonight for the sleepy people that can't fall asleep?

Fletcher: Mommy, can I take my shoes off?

Elaine Boyd: Yes.

Annie: I'll take my shoes off too.

Fletcher: Blast off into space. First let’s get ready to relax. Lay down, close your eyes, get in a comfortable position. Take six deep breaths.


Now imagine you're in space with the stars. Down below is the planet Earth. You can see all the way to your backyard. The blackness of space, the sparkle of the stars. It makes you want lift off to planet Mars. On the way we soak in of all stars and these constellations. You [unintelligible 00:32:43] and the Hercules and the Leos. While you are looking at all the stars and constellations, you take three deep breaths because it's a lot to take in.

Mars is a long way away, so you float into your spaceship and fall asleep on the floor and dream of all things you want to do tomorrow. You can blast off back home and after morning time, you play [unintelligible 00:33:54] and you play baseball, soccer and frisbee and go on more adventures. Then you will visit Saturn, the planet with the wings next.


Jad: Oh my God, Fletcher from Tennessee. You are amazing. I want you to talk to me every night. Lulu, wow. Thank you for taking us on that journey. Also, thanks to Annie McEwen and Rachel Cusick who helped Lulu produce what you just heard. To the entire Radiolab team the Rode shotgun with Lulu all night, screened calls talked to people who called in, Tracie Hunte, [unintelligible 00:34:53], Molly Webster, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Tobin Low.

Lulu: Also, big thanks to Fletcher Lee Johnson and his mom, Alane Boyd. His Six Feet of Separation, the publication by and for kids where we found Fletcher's sleep meditation. Thanks to Chris Collin, Alice Wong, LeVar Burton, musician Wes Swing, Kelley Libby, Karen K. Ho for her great tips on how to fall asleep and to Jin Wang who helped with reporting for this show. Finally, a big shout out to our friends at Reply All who do a mean Collin show.

Jad: Yes.

Lulu: If you like this we highly recommend you check out their episode called Hello.

Jad: I'm Jad Abumrad.

Lulu: And I am Lulu Miller.

Jad: Thanks for listening.

Lulu: Goodbye.


Grace: This is Grace calling from Chicago, Illinois. Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design, Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Bethel Habte, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster. With help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach, and Jonny Moens. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.