Studdard Plans to Launch Youth Program

"American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard has a plan to get teenagers off the streets and into the music industry, even if they can't follow his steps into stardom.

Studdard is launching an after-school program, called "The Music Alternative Project," aimed at keeping young people away from gangs by teaching them the different behind-the-scenes aspects of music production, including song-writing, marketing, accounting and mixing.

"I am a product of the public school system ... and I had a lot of friends involved in gang activity," Studdard, a Birmingham native, told a statehouse panel Wednesday.

He said many of those same friends were talented singers and rappers, "but they didn't have a vehicle to push them."

The Birmingham-based program would enroll about 100 students each year from all over Alabama for music courses after school, on weekends and over the summer. Those who can't regularly make it to Audiostate 55 Recording Studios in Birmingham could participate through distance learning courses.

Henry Panion, a music professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who is director of the project, said he sees it as a form of crime prevention by reaching out to at-risk young people, ages 12-25, who already have an interest in music, but don't have the encouragement or connections.

He said Alabama is rich in musical talent, pointing to "American Idol" sensations Ruben, 2005 runner-up Bo Bice and Taylor Hicks, who's among this year's top eight "Idol" hopefuls. All three are from the Birmingham area.

Alabama's teens know the success stories and "they want to be the next American Idol," said Panion, who has worked with stars including Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, Studdard and last year's "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood.

The project will purchase and update the studio for $350,000, according to Wednesday's proposal. Panion said students would not be charged for the courses, but the studio would be open for rent to other musicians to help offset operating costs. While the program was announced to the Alabama Legislature's Joint Prison Committee on Wednesday, it will not seek state funding.

Panion said the first classes are scheduled for this summer.

Studdard said he would teach a few of the courses and that participants would get a chance to see him work in the recording studio.

Since winning "American Idol" in season two, Studdard has released two successful albums, "Soulful," which sold 1.8 million copies, and "I Need an Angel," which hit No. 1 on Billboard's gospel charts with 436,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

He is currently working on a third album.