One balmy Friday a few weeks ago, about 40 members of the Classical Club gathered in the tightly packed lobby of a small radio station on Toronto's Queen Street East.
The group, aged early 20s to 75-plus, were assembled to hear a private performance from the acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, in town for some sold-out performances that were part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Beethoven Festival.
You could hear a pin drop as the 36-year-old Andsnes -- dubbed "best fingers" by Vanity Fair in 2005 -- settled himself on the bench. As he began to gently stroke the keys of a Steinway, coaxing out a Bach-Busoni chorale prelude, many in the room sighed. Others shut their eyes.
But one jaunty guy in a dark suit just beamed. Moses Znaimer, who had just picked up the keys to the station Classical 96.3 FM (call numbers CFMX) and had organized this intimate recital, was lapping up the ambience. Everything. The music. The culture. The class.
"He sounds like he's making love to the keys," purrs Znaimer, the media guru who founded CITY-TV three decades ago and later brought rock 'n' roll to television with MuchMusic. "See, he's barely touching the keys. It's almost erotic."
Anyone who's ever had contact with Znaimer -- renowned for his pop-culture savvy and active libido -- finds it fitting that he would see his latest business venture in a totally sensual way. "I want to tell you a dirty little secret," the crafty 64-year-old whispers when Andsnes's performance ends, leaving the room in mute awe.
"Under-30s like classical music. Look around. Not only old people listen to it. Many of the people here today are very young and, may I say, good-looking girls," Znaimer adds sassily.
For him, classical music has been a lifelong passion. So Classical 96.3 is not a job, but a calling. "It's been proven scientifically that people who love classical music live longer. They live better. They go on to more stable lives, and better paying careers." Asked where that tidbit came from, Znaimer waves off the question with a flick of a slender wrist. "I can't recall. I read it somewhere."
The statement is vintage Znaimer. Nobody knows how to milk a tale, and turn it into legend, better than he. This son of Jewish immigrants who was born in Tajikistan and emigrated to Montreal in 1948 is both a huckster and a dreamer -- a hard-nosed businessman and a diehard romantic.
And his journey forward with Classical 96.3, which cost him $12-million, means he's determined to work the same magic at this radio station that he did with CITY-TV many years ago, a network everybody thought would fail, but ended up being a television groundbreaker in so many ways.
Znaimer plans to bring CITY-TV's Rambo-style marketing to shake up what has been a sleepy, genteel genre. Seated at the Steinway that Andsnes recently vacated, surrounded by people dressed conservatively in tweed and ties, Znaimer is light years removed from the funkiness of CITY-TV headquarters.
Still, the transformation seems to suit Znaimer. "Listeners to this station are very well-educated, and a very well-heeled group of people," he asserts. "They are the best-educated and highest-earning people in the Greater Toronto area. This audience is valued, and we want to hang onto them. But I want to bring in fresh blood. There are lots of young people listening to this station; we just want more of them."
Classical 96.3 FM's core audience is folk aged 50-plus, and it's Znaimer's goal to bring along the under-40 or even under-30 crowd. He's the only private classical-music-radio player in a Greater Toronto radio listening market of roughly 4.5-million. According to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, 96.3 has a respectable market share of 5 per cent, among the highest of any North American commercial classical station. And the only other classical radio game in town is the CBC.
Znaimer's station draws between 350,000 and 450,000 listeners who stay tuned in for at least a quarter of an hour during the week. While that's small potatoes compared with the 900,000-plus weekly listeners at CFRB and CHUM, Liz Janik, president of Media Mix Inc., says Znaimer has a perfectly viable business model.