Room 20: Compelling Idea, Lacks Execution
Currently back on top of the iTunes podcast charts, a new podcast from the LA Times Studios, Room 20 is the exploration of an unidentified man who was involved in a car accident that caused him to suffer severe brain damage and landed him on life support, being cared for by nurses and social workers who only call him by the name on his hospital wristband: Sixty-Six Garage.
Behind the mic is investigative reporter Joanne Faryon, who left her stable decade-long job as a newsroom reporter and spent two years tracking down witnesses, traveling across the United States and Mexico to sort through facts and falsity about who the man is, what happened that fateful day, and why in the past 17 years, no one who knew the man ever came looking for him.
The First Three Episodes
Throughout the first episode entitled “The First 6 Days,” keeping track of the details of the case of the unidentified brain dead man is a bit difficult. Faryon goes back and forth between past and future events, discussing seemingly unrelated things about her experience, like the other patients in the facility Sixty-Six Garage stays in and the way she feels visiting him.
While trying to create a summarized introduction of the podcast’s purpose, Faryon blurs between events she experienced months after “The First 6 Days,” which creates a confusing timeline, worsened by the back and forth clips of others talking that interject with her monologues.
Some of the audio clips are difficult to listen to, as they depict unnerving medical sounds and uncomfortable conversations Faryon has with Garage in which she speaks to him like a baby.
She mentions this multiple times in her voice-overs of the clips, explaining that she talks to him like a baby because he acts like one.
Some parts of the investigative podcast seem insensitive at best, like when she mentions it took her five days to move from the corner of the room to Garage’s bedside and that she could “hardly look at him” or when she talks about turning her back on his dying twenty-year-old roommate.
As the story develops in the following episodes, Faryon discusses facts about the car accident and the subsequent hospital visit that Garage endured, uncovering that the story reported in the newspaper has some “errors” which she obviously suspects are purposeful cover-ups, including the divulging of Garage’s age which couldn’t possibly be known without some sort of identification.
This sets what is supposed to bring intrigue into the story for listeners, but seems anticlimactic. Shortly after, Faryon goes back into an unrelated story about her own mother’s death.
Interjecting so much of herself, even an interview with her own sister describing their personal experience with death, creates a lot of needless distractions from the story that the podcast is supposed to be investigating. It is a choice in the style of show production that unfortunately continues to reappear throughout the following episodes.
#Room20 is about resilience and human connection. And it’s about deciding how we want to live and how we want to die. I learn something about my own mother’s death that finally brings me closure. I hope you'll listen. https://t.co/wst2SrmKPU pic.twitter.com/0GKdpuqv4i— Joanne Faryon (@JoanneFaryon) July 30, 2019
Relevance in Today’s News
The story does pull on the heartstrings, touching on the anguish of families with missing loved ones who had tried to cross the U.S. border from Mexico, many of which believed Garage to be the person they were searching for. But again, the majority of these first few episodes focus more on related stories and information than the actual story of Garage.
The referencing of immigration issues as a subtopic to Mexican-native Garage’s own story provides an interesting insight into the history of such an important issue in today’s news, which I found to bring some relevance to a story that’s dated in the 1990s.
It is refreshing that journalist Faryon found a way to tie the story of the man into current events without making it feel overly politically motivated or biased. However, as important as the topic is, I wonder if it would not have been better left out of this particular podcast due to the quantity of already unnecessary information and discussions within the story that left me feeling confused?
Trying to pick out the important pieces of information that are relevant to the story and are supposed to be the focus of the podcast in the first place can be a challenge for the listener.
Leaving Something To Be Desired
The theme of this podcast leaves us with a lot of speculation each episode, but not in the intriguing sense of the word that I usually get from an investigative podcast. Rather, it is confusion about whether this podcast’s story is even worth telling publicly through a series of episodes.
I got the sense that the story is lacking in interesting facts to get each episode to the thirty-minute mark, which is why it requires so many extra and seemingly unnecessary side-stories and explanations. This podcast may have been better off as one, long episode featured as a special on an already established podcast channel.
The speaker’s attempts at imagery are lost on me, as they take away from the suspense of the story I was hoping to find. There is a great supporting cast of interesting sources, like a border patrol agent and even members of the Mexican Department of Health. I praise Faryon for her ability to seek these sources out and get them involved in the story, but unfortunately, it was not enough to keep it from falling flat again and again.
How many episodes there will be of this podcast remains a mystery, because much has already been revealed about Garage’s identity and story prior to his accident. For reportedly taking years to assemble the story, the podcast just leaves something to be desired. By episode three, I felt the mystery of Sixty-Six Garage had basically been solved or at least that I had enough information to make an educated guess about the outcome of the story.
Public Opinion and Feedback
Room 20 debuted at Number 1 on the iTunes podcast charts and at the time of this article’s publishing is back at the top, clearly documenting a successful start for the show. But, the reviews are grim thus far with reviewers reporting similar takeaways from the podcast.
Many listeners found it offensive and tasteless, one reviewer even calling it “dehumanizing.” Several people commented on the podcasters lack of interest in Garage as a human being and surprisingly, even more, people were angered that she dismissed Pit Bulls publicly.
Some listeners are concerned about the man called Garage’s rights to consent and privacy. The general consensus is that, while the story of an unidentified man in a vegetative state is captivating, the narrator misses the beat and puts a little too much of herself into what is supposed to be an investigative podcast.
I have low expectations for the rest of the podcast episodes and my hypothesis for it taking the top spots on the charts is that the description persuading listeners to click play is fascinating. However, I am intrigued just enough about the story of Garage that I may keep listening in as they are released if only to finish what I started.
This new podcast does not compare to the other shows produced by The LA Times Studios, which are enticing, well written and have a professionally-done feel to them. While Frayon is new to podcasting from what I can gather, I hope the slow start to Room 20 develops into a stronger finish and surprises us all.
Did Room 20 deliver suspenseful entertainment for you or did the show ultimately miss the mark? Please leave a comment. We want to hear from you.