Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Roll over, Beethoven. Moses has arrived Add to ...

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.

"Jack FM would love to have those numbers," says Janik. "Classical 96.3 has already proven there's an audience for it. People are listening, and the numbers indicate they tend to listen a long time. It's a format that performs well even with a smaller listening base because the numbers of hours that audiences spend with the station are long. That drives up their share of the tuning."

The big question, though, is whether Znaimer will be able to popularize classical music and bring it to the youthful masses. Time will tell, muses Janik. But she figures if anyone can, it's probably Znaimer.

Over the years, Znaimer's been called many things: media visionary, television addict, brilliant impresario, crazy as a fox, mercurial, unpredictable, a lady's man and a marijuana advocate.

The one thing he most assuredly is, however, is a master of invention. And this $12-million investment is testament again to a man who never dips a toe in -- but jumps in with both his Lucchese boot-clad feet.

Sitting on the stairwell in his second-floor lobby, Znaimer explains his marketing assault strategy, set to go into effect in the new year. First, he's going to hire "a classical core" of young people who will be divided into two so-called "brigades."

The first team will be made up of roughly a dozen attractive "reporters" of both sexes who will travel around the city reporting on the latest classical events. They'll travel in easily identifiable "zippy" cars (model still to be decided), he adds, painted with Classical 96.3's tag line: "Relax. Refresh. Recharge."

The second "brigade" will be made up of classical performers -- soloists, duets, trios -- who he plans to send into "at-risk" neighbourhoods -- such as schools in the Jane and Finch area. His aim? To give young adults -- who may never have heard of Mozart or Chopin -- an alternative to hip hop.

One has to wonder how keen these guinea-pig musicians will feel about his scheme. "Hey, this is coming from the daddy of video rock 'n' roll," says Znaimer, who early on in his career owned a Toronto recording studio called Thunder Sound that boasted a sauna in the basement where bands used to go to sweat and smoke dope. "So I think I'm the proper guy to say I think there's room in radio to try something else."

Janik, who points out that Classical 96.3's five-point market share in the GTA is ahead of younger-format stations such as The Edge and Z103.5, says the greatest challenge for Znaimer and his Rambo classical tactical squad will be "finding the sales force that's willing to be original and aggressive in identifying what the key benefits are for this kind of format in this city."

Znaimer is undaunted. "I'm doing this because I truly love the music. And I believe that some level of showmanship applied to this rather severe realm is going to yield some excitement. There's a delicious irony in a guy who brought Canada video rock 'n' roll taking this turn."

In a way, Znaimer's move into classical has returned him to his childhood roots. As a pre-teen growing up on Montreal's Rue St-Urbain, Znaimer's parents (dad, a shoe salesman, mom, a waitress) scraped and saved every penny to put him into piano lessons at McGill University's faculty of music.

Alas, he discovered after a few years that he was no virtuoso. "I got to the age of girls, movies, reading books and shooting pool, and knew I wasn't Leif [Ove Andsnes]material." He eventually graduated with a degree in philosophy and politics from McGill and earned a masters in government from Harvard (and by then, his parents had finally forgiven him for dropping out of the faculty of music).

In the early 1970s, he teamed up with partners to launch CITY-TV, which he eventually sold to CHUM Ltd. He then became programming guru for an rapidly expanding media outlet before resigning in 2003.

Then he went underground, presumably to nurse some wounds.

But in the last year, the man's been everywhere -- investing in Cannasat Therapeutics, a publicly traded company pioneering a new class of drugs from marijuana), producing a comedy called Rumours for the CBC -- and now his mug can be seen on buses and billboards around the city in ads promoting Classical 96.3. A riff on earlier ads that showed a comely young lass in the bathtub saying, "I'm listening," Znaimer's ad says, "Are you listening?" And it has superimposed his wicked elfin face onto the girl's suds-covered body.

Classical 96.3's office -- a stone's throw from Toronto's Humane Society at Queen and River streets -- is a placid, restful spot, distinctly at odds with the mayhem-in-motion that is such a part of the cult of CITY-TV.

But don't for a second suggest to Znaimer that his new digs are stodgy or sedate. The advertising community infuriates him because it insists on viewing classical music as the realm of doddering old fools.

"Where does this idea come from [in the ad world]that when you hit age 50, you somehow die," Znaimer asks. "I'm Moses Znaimer sitting in a rocking chair, chewing my gums, waiting for my pension cheque to buy my dog food? It's so bizarre and misplaced."

It makes him madder still that Classical 96.3's core listening audience contains the captains of industry running huge ad houses and laying down the rigid rules that only the young 18-to-35 demographic matters.

"You have to wonder about industry leaders who deny their own experience. You have to be pretty alienated from yourself," he fumes. "The reality is our core listeners are at the peak of their careers, living larger, living well, on second and third marriages, spending like crazy on travel, on things related to health and well-being, and on whimsy.

"Our main challenge here at Classical 96.3 is to open [advertisers']eyes to the truth. And get rid of the notion that classical music is for ancients."

He might have a point. Over at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, 15 to 20 per cent of regular concert sales go to people under the age of 30 -- a large jump from under 1 per cent only five years ago.

Well-programmed, Media Mix's Janik believes classical radio has the "capacity of being very strong in the 25-to-65 age group, with the heart [of the audience]being 50 to 60.

"The sound of the station fills a mood service of calm and relaxing, which is important to people today, with busy lifestyles and all," she adds.

Znaimer bought Classical 96.3 from Trumar Communications, owned by Martin and Truus Rosenthal. He got Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission approval in the summer and now has an application before the federal regulator for a digital classical video channel.

He's hired veteran radio man George Grant (who worked at CITY-TV the first year it opened, has been in radio 42 years, including a stint as general manager of CHFI, and was part-owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) to be CEO of the radio division of MZ Media.

Recently, there have been rumours that former Sony Music Canada president Denise Donlon -- who launched MuchMusic for Znaimer and recently organized the star-studded birthday party at the Fairmont Royal York for former U.S. president Bill Clinton during the Toronto International Film Festival last month -- is being courted to join the Classical 96.3 team.

Znaimer wouldn't comment, but Donlon was front and centre at the Andsnes concert. And she stayed for the gourmet brie-and-black-angus-beef sandwiches. And while some staffers at the FM station may have, at first, been skeptical about Znaimer and his real motivation for buying 96.3 -- his enthusiasm for the genre has now won them over.

As Louise Thomas, the radio station's veteran office manager puts it: "Any change makes people nervous. But Moses's reputation precedes him as taking little, and making big."

Classic Moses

A life-long passion for broadcasting starts in the early 1960s when Moses Znaimer joins the CBC. He becomes one of creators of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup, as well as co-host of CBC-TV's Take 30 with Adrienne Clarkson.

In early 1970s, he and partners are awarded Toronto's first UHF broadcasting licence on Channel 79. CITY-TV launches in 1972 and changes to Channel 57 in 1983.

Toronto media conglomerate CHUM Inc. buys CITY-TV in 1981. Znaimer is made vice-president of CHUM and oversees all of CITY's programming. He launches 24-hour music-video station MuchMusic in 1984, a revolutionary step in Canadian television.

Through the 1990s, Znaimer is the colourful face presiding over the rapidly expanding CHUM/CITY-TV empire, which comes to include channels such as Bravo!, Space: The Imagination Station and North America's first 24-hour local news station, CablePulse 24 -- to name a few.

Znaimer resigns from CITY-TV and CHUM in spring of 2003.

In 2001, he launches ideaCity, his version of an annual intellectual festival in California called the TED Conference. By 2006, ideaCity has 500 attendees and 50 speakers.

In 2006, Cannasat Therapeutics, a company pioneering a new class of drugs from marijuana, goes public. The chair of Cannasat is Znaimer, who owns 5 per cent of the company. This year, Znaimer is also executive producer of an English-language version of the Quebec comedy Rumours for CBC.

In mid-September, 2006, Znaimer gets the keys to Classical 96.3 FM. Will the genteel world of classical music ever be the same? Can a supersized Stradivarius sculpture -- similar to the jeep that blasts out a brick wall outside CITY-TV headquarters -- be far behind?

-- G.M.

Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeArts

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories