Symposium: Living in the End Times
Podcasting in a Pandemic: Dystopian Audio Drama in 2020 Brazil
Introduction: Negotiating Dystopia in the Country of the Future
As the twenty-first century enters its third decade, Brazil’s enduring associations with Edenic bounty and predestined prosperity have succumbed to a dystopian imaginary (Sadlier 1-9). Optimistic visions eliding the darker aspects of Brazilian history have long characterized the place that Stefan Zweig famously called A Land of the Future in the subtitle of his 1941 nonfictional book, Brazil. In recent years, however, fatalism has largely eclipsed such hopefulness. The 2016 parliamentary coup against Dilma Rousseff, the election of far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018, major fires in the Amazon rainforest, and the emergence of COVID-19 in 2020 have fueled a consensus that Brazil has become a dystopia (Fernandes; Fuks; Lavinas and Stefanoni). The pandemic has been particularly damaging, with Bolsonaro overseeing the world’s worst national response according to a January 2021 study by the Lowy Institute.
As the coronavirus spread in Brazil, most collective artistic production became potentially dangerous. Unlike cinema, television, and the theater, however, podcasting required minimal adaptation to continue apace. Audio dramas released via podcasts thus stand alone as full-cast, fictional productions released in their standard form during the initial months of the pandemic. This article analyzes three such works released in July and August 2020: Jacqueline Vargas’s #TdVaiFicar… (#EverythingWillBe…), Projeto Pytuna’s Pytuna: Estação Nacional Libertadora (Pytuna: National Liberation Station), and Spotify Studios’ Sofia. While these series are united by their contemporaneous debuts and their exaggerated depictions of social ills, their production histories and the foci of their respective sociopolitical critiques diverge widely. As reflected by #TdVaiFicar’s COVID-centric script, Vargas conceived of her podcast entirely during the pandemic (Vargas, “Como”). Pytuna sought public funding as an audiovisual project yet transformed into an audio drama in 2020 (Crisci). Although it was recorded in lockdown, Pytuna does not incorporate COVID-19 into its critique of Brazilian fascism. In contrast to these independently produced works, Spotify’s Sofia is not an original drama but rather an adaptation of Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffat’s 2018 podcast Sandra. The absence of COVID-19 in the Brazilian version directed by Mabel Cézar is unsurprising given its close adherence to the American original. In fact, the exact timeframe of Sofia’s realization is unspecified in any production materials, meaning that it could have been recorded prior to March 2020. Still, the podcast’s debut during the pandemic recontextualizes its topical yet temporally indefinite depiction of technology’s detrimental social effects. By comparing these three projects, this article considers podcasting’s status as a medium for speculative critique and the uncertain ethics of dystopian narration during moments of collective crisis.
Compounding Tensions: Form, Genre, and Field of Production
Faced with the logistical challenges of production during pandemic, the selected podcasts adopt similarly conventional approaches to form and narrative. Sofia maintains Sandra’s episodic structure and original sound design, while the independent productions are similarly serialized and sonically straightforward. Journalist Leonardo Sanchez highlights the theatricality common to all three works, tracing their aesthetic roots to the radionovelas popular in Brazil in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. This shared traditionalism, however, constricts the shocking elements of each work’s dystopia, characterized by “plac[ing] us directly in a dark and depressing reality, conjuring up a terrifying future if we do not recognize and treat its symptoms in the here and now” (Gordin et al. 2). By maintaining a conception of audio drama as the “theatre of the mind” rooted in radio plays, these podcasts foreground cognitive interpretation without engaging the expressive, avant-garde representational possibilities outlined by Farokh Soltani (200). While more experimental approaches to auditory dystopia might incorporate discordant music or cacophony, for example, these podcasts describe their heightened societies primarily through dialogue and narration.
These tensions between form and content produce cognitive dissonance that limits the critical possibilities and utopian impulse of each work’s dystopian vision. For Michael Gordin et al., dystopia and utopia comprise a dialectic rooted in reciprocal functions of social critique: “Every utopia always comes with its implied dystopia – whether the dystopia of the status quo, which the utopia is engineered to address, or a dystopia found in the way this specific utopia corrupts itself in practice” (2). Dystopia functions as utopia’s negative, exaggerating social flaws to reveal the need for targeted, constructive imagination. The object of this critique may be explicitly identified, as in the works Lyman Tower Sargent categorizes as “critical dystopia,” or remain implicit (5-7). A work that is uncritical or entirely hopeless, however, should not be considered a dystopia but rather an anti-utopia (Baccolini and Moylan 5).
A brief overview of the field of Brazilian podcasting will contextualize each work’s embrace of dystopian criticism. For Pierre Bourdieu, fields of cultural production are intricately structured social spaces wherein agents compete for cultural (and economic) capital through a series of position-takings (29-73). The cultural capital available for Brazilian podcasters has risen precipitously in recent years. In his study of the medium, Lúcio Luiz identifies rapid expansion in the early 2010s, arguing that the national “podosphere” included programming on nearly any subject by 2014. By 2019, Brazil was the world’s second largest podcast download market, trailing only the US (Blubrry).
Despite this increased popularity, profitability has lagged (Luiz). In response, Brazil’s podcasters have traditionally embraced a collaborative ethos (Bonassoli). Due to this sense of community and cheap costs of production, podcasting has remained attractive for creators despite the unlikelihood of financial gain. #TdVaiFicar and Pytuna embody this low-stakes, risk-taking tradition despite the involvement of television professionals in each project. Developments during the late 2010s portend significant changes to the field, however, as domestic and international media companies seek leadership in a consolidating market.
Audio dramas retain a niche position in a field dominated by a conversational, nonfictional format derived from live radio. The 2019 edition of the biannual PodPesquisa market research survey, for instance, does not list a single narrative work in its top twenty ranking (Associação). Still, Marcelo Abud et al. identify surplus demand for fictional podcasts (13). Spotify’s investment in Portuguese-language audio drama seeks to capitalize on this dynamic. Initial results suggest that this Swedish firm has effectively leveraged its position as the dominant delivery system for Brazilian podcast listeners (Associacão). Sofia is among the most popular fictional podcasts on Spotify’s rankings and the only featured podcast in the company’s overall top 200 list (Chartable.com, “Spotify Podcasts: Brazil”). While this success might translate to heightened awareness for independent dramas like #TdVaiFicar and Pytuna, Spotify’s billions pose a clear threat to the collaborative spirit underpinning these works.
Catastrophe, Cognitive Dissonance, and Conformity: Analyzing 2020’s Dystopian Podcasts
Set in a near future where COVID-19 has run amok, #TdVaiFicar embraces the exaggerated darkness of dystopia. Even so, the podcast’s explicitly “vintage” aesthetics rooted in theatricality and serialization evoke a sense of normality that belies its production during lockdown (Vargas, “Como”). While the series effectively evokes the dramas of yesteryear, this unexpected ordinariness at times dilutes the urgency of the work’s social critique and accentuates the ethical challenge of representing an ongoing crisis.
The podcast’s primary narrative takes place in a single location: the upscale Edifício Harmonia (Harmony Building) in São Paulo. Millions have died from COVID-19, which has now evolved into multiple, vaccine-resistant strains. Much of the drama is quotidian, but one fantastical subplot follows a conspiracy to forcibly vaccinate all of São Paulo with an airborne, untested remedy. In addition to the main storyline, Vargas intersperses occasional narration by building resident Débora from an unspecified point further into the future. Backed by the sound of rain and thunder, this intradiegetic narrator repeatedly affirms the hopelessness of the narrative future.
At its best, #TdVaiFicar conjures the darkness of March and April 2020 alongside the resilience and hopefulness of this frightening time. During emotional moments like Ulises’s revelation that his physician wife died working in a COVID ward, Vargas takes advantage of the intimacy of earbud listening that Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann identify as a distinguishing characteristic of the podcast medium. Such moments of vivid pathos fortify #TdVaiFicar’s illustration of unexpected solidarity between acquaintances, hinting at the prospect of localized utopian praxis rooted in collective trauma.
Other elements of the series, however, undercut this constructive impulse. Any political critique remains fragmentary, as Vargas eschews the specificity and historical focus of critical dystopia to focus primarily on interpersonal drama. Since overcoming a pandemic requires large-scale, collective action, this absence dilutes the series’ transformational imagination. Devoid of political perspective, Débora’s dispatches from the narrative future fail to add urgency and instead imply that community-based solidarity is impotent when faced with authoritarian governance. #TdVaiFicar’s social criticism similarly fails to outline any radical utopian horizon for the post-pandemic world. Good intentions reconcile class differences between building residents and employees, while neither the script nor the series’ casting address racial disparities. As proven by the outsized effect of COVID-19 on Brazil’s Black and indigenous populations, these historical divisions must be addressed to realize a more socially just future after the pandemic recedes.
In an interview with Luciano Guaraldo, Vargas asserts that dystopia produces a cathartic effect by allowing an audience to confront their fears in fictional form (Guaraldo). Indeed, a comparison of the real and fictionalized pandemics at the time of #TdVaiFicar’s release would suggest that the worst-case scenario did not come to pass. Nonetheless, the surge of the more infectious P.1 variant across Brazil in February and March 2021 underscores the prematurity of this sense of relief. With Brazil increasingly resembling #TdVaiFicar’s dystopian future, the podcast’s implicit optimism appears misguided. Disconnected from any specific vision of sociopolitical reform, the implication that the pandemic could have been much worse fuels a potentially dangerous sense of complacency that approximates the resigned worldview of anti-utopia.
Pytuna avoids any such fatalism, instead constructing a paradigmatic critical dystopian denouncement of Brazilian fascism. Despite its well-defined target, this podcast adapted by Vitor Paranhos from an idea by Francesco Crisci struggles to synthesize its focus on the present with its broader allegory of twentieth century history. Although the series’ script predates the pandemic, the exclusion of COVID-19 fuels dissonance related to this engagement with current events. Whereas #TdVaiFicar’s virus-centric narrative would benefit from more specific sociopolitical critique, Pytuna reveals how this catastrophe’s gravity challenges critical dystopian representation of other phenomena.
The series’ narrative recounts the struggles of a racially and sexually diverse group of rebels forced into hiding by a fascist regime in 2025. The journalist Clarissa hopes to bring down the Novo Regimento (New Regime) government by proving that its founder and his wife, evangelical leader Mara Summer, enslaved an indigenous girl. Pytuna’s heightened depiction of religion, politics, and censorship draws from several moments in Brazilian history: the integralist movement of the 1920s and 1930s, the Estado Novo dictatorship of 1937-45, the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, and the Bolsonaro government. However, explicit references to the earlier moments are largely confined to the podcast’s blog while the narrative allegorizes recent scandals. The character of Mara Summer, for instance, derives her name from right-wing agitator Sara Winter, while the story of the exploited adolescent Aracy derives from evangelical government minister Damares Alves’s controversial adoption of an indigenous child. These references underscore dystopian aspects of contemporary Brazilian society, but this specific attention to comparatively minor crises throws the pandemic’s absence into relief.
Pytuna’s utopian aspirations, outlined in the series’ paratextual materials, are recurrently curbed by a script that emphasizes survival rather than social reconfiguration. In his blog introducing the podcast, Crisci argues that radio can serve as a liberating medium of democratic expression for Brazilians engaged with myriad social justice struggles. The decision to adapt his screenplay into an audio drama due to insufficient funding exemplifies this belief (Crisci). In Pytuna, Paranhos and Crisci incorporate the aesthetics of radio to generate identification with the rebels. As the first episode begins, the listener hears snippets of music and a sermon as if they were “tuning in” to the resistance’s pirate broadcasts. In later episodes, the audience is privy to shortwave radio communication between individual guerillas. However, the rebels’ ultimate failure to broadcast their incriminating evidence appears to acknowledge this medium’s limited cultural reach. While the series could yet become a cult favorite, Chartable.com’s rankings confirm that the series’ creators encountered similar difficulty connecting with a broad audience (“Apple Podcasts: Brazil: Fiction”).
Crisci’s blog also invites collaborators and audience members to project the future they wish to see. The rebels reflect this collectivist ethos, yet they too often appear as secondary characters eclipsed by the vaudeville villainy of Mara Summer. For instance, the series offers minimal details about the resistance’s governance of the Park of Monsters, a rural area contaminated by a Chernobyl-like meltdown, while an interview with Summer fills an entire episode. Apart from its admirable embrace of diversity, Pytuna fails to project a radically different society and instead limits its vision to exaggerating undesirable aspects of the present.
By excluding COVID-19, Pytuna partially avoids the ethical challenges faced by #TdVaiFicar. Nonetheless, this absence could be construed as negligent in a work recorded during the pandemic and otherwise actively engaged with contemporary politics. Given its devastating impact in Brazil, COVID-19 will cast a long shadow over national artistic production regardless of the virus’s narrative inclusion in a particular work. Pytuna thus foreshadows the delicate balance that socially engaged works whose critical priorities lie elsewhere must seek. At the same time, the series’ lack of narrative resolution suggests that Paranhos and Crisci’s critical vision remained constrained by the financial difficulties that undermined their initial ambitions.
Unlike most independent podcasters, Spotify has vast resources at its disposal. The company’s arrival in Brazil could thus reshape the field of podcast production and the niche of audio drama. Given this context, Sofia’s dystopian bona fides derive as much from its status as a potential harbinger of a homogenous future as from its heightened portrait of technological alienation. The series’ Brazilian localization only changes character and place names, maintaining the rest of the original, American script verbatim. Sofia’s critical view of corporatized technology applies to Brazil, yet the series does not engage with current events or distinct aspects of contemporary Brazilian society. Deprived of the cultural and historical specificity inherent in critical dystopia, the series’ analysis foregrounds a moralistic rejection of technology disconnected from any constructive projection.
This series’ plot follows Helena as she begins working in a call center whose employees are the true voice behind the popular virtual assistant Sofia. Although she initially aspires to leverage her position to escape her dreary hometown, Helena later perceives the corrupting influence of corporate culture and her employer’s technology. Given the script’s roots in 2018, the exclusion of COVID-19 is unsurprising. However, Sofia maintains a brief discussion of an imaginary pandemic from the original script that now produces a striking moment of cognitive dissonance. Despite the coincidental nature of this incongruity, this moment demonstrates Spotify Studios’ disinterest in adapting Sofia to address Brazilian reality at the time of the podcast’s release.
The series is entertaining, with high production values and an effective plot twist whereby Helena’s attempts to create interpersonal connections accidentally enable a domestic abuser. After ignoring mounting evidence that technology facilitates destructive impulses, the protagonist abandons her professional ambitions and attempts to save the woman whose life she endangered in the series’ final moments. Still, Helena’s decision does not represent conscious engagement with utopian possibility but rather an attempt to limit the disastrous effects of her corporate ambitions.
Although Sofia effectively exaggerates negative repercussions of technological ubiquity, the series’ ambition to remain evergreen limits the impact of its critique. The call center’s technical capacities suggest a near-future setting, yet the podcast does not include temporal markers. The topicality of its themes and setting in recognizable geography associate the narrative with contemporary Brazilian reality, yet there are no references to public figures or historical events. This aesthetic does not affect the podcast’s broad denouncement of corporatized technology as morally corrupt, but it does preclude the specificity of critical dystopia. Consequently, Sofia’s social analysis and its final utopian gesture towards a less-connected future are simultaneously sweeping and superficial.
Conclusion: Problems without Solutions
None of the three podcasts analyzed in this article ultimately project the radical aspirations that Gordin et al. associate with dystopian narratives: “dystopias by definition seek to alter the social order on a fundamental, systemic level. They address root causes and offer revolutionary solutions” (2). #TdVaiFicar effectively recalls the trauma of the pandemic, but its premature satisfaction that this crisis could have been worse leaves little space for the series’ critical impulse. Pytuna approximates the critical dystopian interest in root causes, yet this analysis is too often eclipsed by denouncements of recent scandals. Sofia’s adherence to its American predecessor requires a broad vision that precludes granular critique. At the same time, the indefinite temporality of the Spotify Studios production throws the historical rootedness of the independent works into relief. Neither #TdVaiFicar nor Pytuna outline revolutionary alternatives to the present, but they do analyze contemporary Brazilian society with constructive intent. As a result, it remains possible that future artists (in less trying circumstances) will draw inspiration from these works’ inchoate utopian desires while outlining their own visions for radical change. Such works will likely be marginalized, however, if major corporations continue to colonize the Brazilian podosphere.
 Recent headlines confirm the prominence of this pessimistic vision across academic disciplines and national borders. To cite but a few examples, French political scientist Gaspard Estrada (in an interview with Daniela Fernandes), Brazilian author Julián Fuks, and Brazilian economist Lena Lavinas (in an interview with Pablo Stefanoni) each describe Brazil as dystopian in articles published in 2020.
 Sandra was produced by Gimlet Media, which was purchased by Spotify in 2019. Part of Spotify’s larger experiment with localization, Sofia was released alongside German-, French-, and Spanish-language translations of Sandra.
 Cézar’s presence as director of an entirely Brazilian cast explains Sofia’s classification as a Brazilian podcast.
 Consult Dom Phillips’s article “‘Enormous disparities’: Coronavirus Death Rates Expose Brazil’s Deep Racial Inequalities” (2020) for an overview of this dynamic.
 This strain of COVID-19 drew international attention by overloading Manaus’s healthcare system in January 2021. It is known colloquially as the Manaus variant or the Brazilian variant.
 See Marcela Silva’s “O fascismo tupiniquim” (2020), included on Pytuna’s Medium.com page, and Rafael Patiri’s “Plano Cohen” (2020), published on the series’ website.
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— and Vitor Paranhos. Pytuna: Estação Nacional Libertadora. Mídia Ninja, 2020, projetopytuna.com.
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Benjamin Burt is an Assistant Adjunct Professor in UCLA’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese and a Research Fellow at the UCLA Center for Brazilian Studies. His dissertation “Cities of Dreams and Despair: Utopia and Dystopia in Contemporary Brazilian Film and Literature” (2020) uses a utopian studies framework to analyze recent representations of Brasília and São Paulo. His current, comparative research project considers ecological dystopia and post-utopia in Brazil, Cuba, and Mexico.