At some point in the future, I suspect that Apple will sell an Apple Watch with a built-in cellular connection so that it can connect to the Internet even when it is not within Bluetooth range of an iPhone, and thus be more of an independent device. Even now, there are certain things that you can do without an iPhone nearby, although you run into limits. An Apple Watch can track your workout (and track your progress if you have a Series 2 with GPS), and you can even listen to music using just the Apple Watch and Bluetooth earphones (such as AirPods) if you first transfer songs to the Apple Watch. But if you want to listen to a podcast, there is no built-in way to do that without having an iPhone nearby. Of course, the absence of a feature is often a great opportunity for a third party developer, and Peter Knapp, a software developer in Germany, created Watch Player so that you can transfer podcast episodes to an Apple Watch and then play them on the Apple Watch even without an iPhone. The app works well, and it is free to use (although in-app tips are accepted).
The iPhone version of the app has one main screen with four buttons across the top. Use the button at the top right to select a podcast. You can either search for a podcast by name, or if you have a specific RSS feed you can add that URL.
Tap on any podcast name to select specific episodes to download to your iPhone, which should happen very quickly on a Wi-Fi connection.
The main screen of the Watch Player app on the iPhone shows all of the episodes which have been downloaded and are thus available to transfer to your Apple Watch. A green button indicates that an episode has already been synced; a red button indicates that it has not yet been synced.
To sync episodes, open the Watch Player app on your Apple Watch and then press the sync button at the top left of the iPhone app. Episodes will then transfer. It takes a little while to do so. For example, a 2 hour and 21 minute episode of The Talk Show (97 MB) took me about six minutes to transfer.
While the file is transferring, if you look at your Apple Watch screen you can see the progress as a percentage at the top of the screen. The same percentage also shows at the bottom of the iPhone app during transfer. The percentage is only updated when your watch screen is on, so if the screen turns off during the transfer, just tap once on the Apple Watch screen to wake the watch and update the progress indication.
Note that in the current version, you will see some bizarre numbers at the top of the screen at the very end of the transfer, due to the way that the app calculates the percentage. Just ignore that and it will go away.
Once episodes are transferred, the main screen of the Apple Watch app will show you the available episodes.
Tap on an episode to see a screen where you can start to play the episode. On this screen, you can also select to start the podcast at any particular point, useful if you have already listened to part of a podcast on your iPhone and just want to resume listening starting where you left off.
Once you press play, the podcast will begin. If you have Bluetooth speakers attached to your Apple Watch, such as a pair of AirPods, then the podcast will play through that source. Otherwise, you will just hear the podcast using the built-in speaker on the Apple Watch. There is a large play/pause button in the middle, plus smaller buttons to jump forward or backwards five seconds at a time. You can also adjust the volume.
Alternatively, if you are using Bluetooth speakers, you can use the standard Now Playing app on the Apple Watch to play/pause or control volume. However, the FF and RW buttons in the Now Playing app don't appear to do anything when the Watch Player app is playing a podcast.
Tap the Watch Player icon at the top left of the Now Playing screen to jump to the Watch Player app.
I mentioned using this app while you are walking or jogging and you leave your iPhone at home, but it is also useful if you are listening to a podcast while you are just doing errands around the house and your iPhone is not in your pocket. You can listen to a podcast using earphones connected via Bluetooth to the Apple Watch without having to stay in the same room as the iPhone so that the earphones are close enough to the iPhone to maintain a Bluetooth connection.
I also used this app when using a treadmill inside of my house. Everything worked fine, but I didn't see any advantage to using Watch Player when it is easy for my iPhone to be nearby.
When you are finished with an episode, you can delete it from the watch one of two ways. First, you can swipe across an episode title in the iPhone app to delete that episode, and then sync to the watch to remove it from the watch. Second, in the Watch Player app on the Apple Watch, go to the screen for a particular episode (the one with the big Play button at the bottom) and force-press on the screen. This will show the option to delete an episode.
My iPhone podcast player of choice is Overcast, and it has the option to speed up podcast playback by playing at a faster speed (I typically use 1.5x) and by removing longer pauses between words. Watch Player lacks those features, and I miss them. When you are used to hearing a person's voice at 1.5x speed, the voice---sounds---really---slow---at---normal---speed. There is an Overcast app for the Apple Watch, but it is just a remote control for the iPhone. That's a useful feature, but I wish that the Apple Watch app also let you download particular episodes to the Apple Watch. Maybe that feature will be added to Overcast in the future, and if it is, I strongly suspect that I would switch from Watch Player to Overcast.
Just a few weeks ago, another app was released that does something similar to Watch Player. It is called Watchcast, and it aims to be both an iPhone app for listening to podcasts and an Apple Watch app, meaning that you can sync your play position between both devices. It has some features that I prefer over Watch Player. First, the artwork for a podcast syncs to the Apple Watch, which I like to see. Second, Apple Watch app lets you jump forward 30 seconds or jump back 15 seconds, better than the 5 seconds offered by Watch Player.
However, the current version of Watchcast has a major drawback — no progress indicator for when you are transferring a podcast to the Apple Watch. Transferring audio to an Apple Watch is very slow no matter how you are doing it; this is true even when you are transferring songs using Apple's own music app. Thus, I consider seeing how much longer you have to wait pretty essential. Otherwise, you wonder if it is doing anything at all and feel tempted to shut down the app and start over. (Another, less important, issue is that Watchcast doesn't work with the Now Playing app.) If Watchcast is ever updated to add a progress indicator, such as a percentage like Watch Player uses or even just a progress bar, then I'll take a closer look at Watchcast, but this omission makes the current version less appealing to me than Watch Player.
For now, Watch Player is a perfect solution to the problem of playing podcasts on your Apple Watch without having to also carry around your iPhone. This past weekend, I went jogging on historic St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, watching the streetcars pass and looking at the beautiful live oak trees overhead. My Apple Watch was on my wrist and my AirPods were in my ears, but I didn't have any other electronics with me. Not carrying my iPhone meant that I was cut off from electronic communication with the world — no phone calls, text messages, emails, etc. — but that isn't necessarily a bad thing when you are exercising. Thanks to the Watch Player app, I was able to listen to a brand new podcast as I looked at interesting houses on St. Charles Avenue built in the 1800s.